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Jan Hills

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Do you have a false growth mindset?


Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindset has been eagerly taken up by companies. But new research suggests many people are misusing the research. This leads to what has been called a false growth mindset. Read on and as you do you might like to assess if this is an issue in your organisations.

There are different examples of what is being termed false growth mindset some are a misuse of the research and some are about taking short cuts that undermine the effect of adopting a growth mindset.

A false growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand what it is. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.

You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset, like a new role where you are concerned about understanding what is expected. Or something really challenging and outside your comfort zone can trigger it, or, if you encounter someone who is much better than you at something you pride yourself on, you can think “Oh, that person has the ability, not me.”

Understanding your own triggers is a step towards getting back into growth mindset and avoiding getting stuck in fixed mind-set.

Praising effort alone

In many organisation, we hear managers describing mindset as praise alone. We know praise makes people feel good but praise alone does not create a growth mindset.

Dweck says that praising the process or strategy taken is also crucial. Praise should focus on not just that the person tried but that they had good strategies, focus and persistence and tying these to performance, learning, or progress towards a goal is what promotes a growth mindset.

Many managers are taught about praise and positive feedback but the link to process and learning has been lost. Even worse employees who most need to learn about developing their abilities may instead be receiving praise for their ineffective effort.

Managers need to be truthful; acknowledge laudable effort, but also acknowledge when employees are not learning effectively, and then work with them to find new learning strategies.

Exhorting people to try hard, when their process is ineffective, is another practice that does not teach a growth mindset.

You may read articles that suggest you praise the effort, not the outcome. It is subtler than that. Praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress, its vitally important to tie the praise to it. It’s not just effort, but strategy as well. A manager’s role is to help the employee find the strategy that works for them and show how strategies create success.

Employees need to know that if they are stuck effort alone is not the growth mindset answer. Managers should be encouraging them to know when to ask for help and when to use resources that are available. All of this is part of the process that needs to be taught and tied to learning.

Telling employees “you can do anything”

In the name of a growth mindset, employees may be assured that they are capable of anything.

While this may be true, simply asserting it does not make it so, particularly when employees don’t have the knowledge, skills, strategies, or resources to bring this about.

Skilled managers set high standards for their people but then help them understand how to meet those standards.

Blaming the employee’s mindset

Researchers say this is the most discouraging thing they have heard about using the idea of growth mindset. The employee’s mindset is blamed for their failure to learn.

A manager’s role is to create the environment, safe but with high expectations, where employees can leave behind their fixed mindset and try out ideas so that they can develop their abilities. This happens when people have:

  • Meaningful work
  • Encouragement to assess and monitor their own performance
  • Honest and helpful verification of their own assessment of their work performance, additional feedback and coaching-based ‘feed forward’
  • Advice on future learning strategies
  • Opportunities to revise their work and show their learning.

Overcoming perceived threats

Finally, managers need to be honest with themselves and check their own mindset. Having a growth mindset is attracting status in some organisation and enhancing the manager’s reputation. Managers are declaring themselves to have a growth mindset without taking the journey to acquire it, learning how to keep it and further develop it. This is perhaps a lifetime journey.

Everyone has a mixture of both mindsets: sometimes we’re in a growth mindset, and sometimes we’re triggered into a fixed mindset by what we perceive as threats.

These can be challenges, mistakes, failures, or criticisms that threaten our sense of our abilities and confidence and our social reputation. For example, doing something new in the role or working for a new boss. When assessing their own mindset one useful question managers (or anyone) need to be reflecting on is “Am I inspired to try new things, or am I anxious or defensive?”

To work toward more of a growth mindset managers, and all of us, need to observe ourselves and find the triggers which flip us into fixed.

Noticing when you enter a more threatened, defensive state. When this happens managers, themselves need coaching to not fight it but to observe.

Susan Mackie, an education researcher who has worked with Dweck, advises that you give your fixed mindset persona a name.

Talk to it, calling it by name, when it shows up. Over time, try to recruit it to collaborate on your challenging goals instead of letting it undermine you with doubts and fears.

The mindset research has a major impact on learning, performance management and company talent processes. It is one of the few tools that has been repeatedly validated by rigorous research, but for this tool to be effective, it must be understood and used properly.

And managers and HR leaders need to understand this is not a quick fix but a journey.

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Jan Hills


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