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Pete Weston

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Growth mindset: elegant theory or robust intervention?


‘Growth mindset’ initiatives have once again become a hot topic in HR circles, but not all organisations are getting it right. 

Growth mindset theory, the belief that you can develop your intelligence and abilities, is appealing and seductively simple, but, just because it works in education, does that make it viable for the workplace?

The answer is YES – but it is important to take the differences between the two into account.

Consider these distinctions:

  • Professor Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset was conducted in an educational setting, which we term a  ‘bounded’ environment; by time, work content and other context.
  • The experts are the teachers and the students are the novices or learners. In the workplace it is not unusual for leaders to be less expert than those they lead.
  • Mistakes are part of learning and even encouraged in an educational setting. In the workplace there are often negative consequences for making mistakes.
  • How ‘high achievers’ in business are recognised and developed.
  • Growth mindset is often a mandated systematic process in education.

The implications for a ‘bounded’ environment  

The educational systems try to make  learning as unambiguous as possible. For example, curricula are clear and success criteria are transparent. The individual has a clear path to the goal by subject matter, age and recognised benchmarks. This is a bounded system.

So for an individual with a growth mindset in this bounded system, it should be clear what abilities are needed to be successful. Teachers (not all) can guide the student to develop the right attributes to become successful.  

Compare this with a work environment (unbounded) – here’s an example:

The growth mindset employee is home-based in a matrix-style organisation. They work at the boundary between the customer and the organisation (in sales or customer service for example).

Their manager is on long-term sick leave. The organisation has just had a poor quarter and there are rumours of lay-offs. Two questions come to mind:

  • What does success look like for this employee now?
  • What new capabilities are they motivated to learn now?

A lot of common responses, especially from management will include things like ‘be more resilient’ or ‘develop your grit’, or ‘get a positive mental attitude’.  

Take ’grit’ which has come into public gaze recently by Angela Lee Duckworth. Some posit that ‘grit’ is a characteristic of a growth mindset person (see Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk for more information).

The suggestion is that grittiness is correlated with success. However, a study by Kings College London suggests no correlation between grit and academic success.

So encouraging employees dealing with ambiguity to learn to be more resilient, gritty and determined probably has no effect. 

So what? Growth mindset has reached the mainstream and we see evidence that organisations are confusing having a growth mindset culture with individual and organisational success. This is understandable as it is often presented as the route map to success. This is the wrong thinking.

Growth mindset alone cannot be viewed as the only approach.

Encouraging employees dealing with ambiguity to learn to be more resilient, gritty and determined probably has no effect. 

If you are about to embark or consider a growth mindset initiative:

  • What outcomes does it promise? Are they realistic?
  • Can you associate your growth mindset initiative with other initiatives that directly target measureable outcomes, for example staff retention?
  • Has your business sponsor misunderstood growth mindset? Do they think that growth mindset is a panacea? Maybe you need to reset their expectations
  • Are you working with external consultants who are building unrealistic expectations?

Working with expert employees

Expertise is formal recognition of capabilities within a clear job function, ie engineering, accounting, medicine, science etc.

The nature of expertise in the past has lent itself to behaving in a fixed mindset manner; desire to look smart, prone to ignoring useful feedback (from non-experts), threatened by others’ success and generally defined by a deterministic view of the world.

The good news is, the nature of expertise is evolving; information is ubiquitous, and the world is moving faster that any single expert can keep pace with.

The nature of expertise in the past has lent itself to behaving in a Fixed Mindset manner.

Expertise is a source of power in an organisation, experts are powerful people and, even if they can’t change approved initiatives, they may derail them. If your initiative addresses a community who are valued for their subject matter expertise, you may need to consider the following at the start of the initiative:

  • Spend more time socialising the growth mindset ideas; get reaction from experts and surface real resistance.  
  • Take more time and effort diagnosing fixed mindset.
  • Look for growth mindset-minded experts to champion the initiative.
  • Respect any resistance, and work with your sponsor to find ways to channel resistance away from the initiative (e.g. one-to-one coaching from a respected growth mindset expert).

Making mistakes

Making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of having a growth mindset. In business this is easier said than done. Do you know someone that was promoted for making a mistake?

What is your organisation’s real attitude towards mistake-making?

Professor Carol Dweck researched students whose mistakes have little immediate consequence for them and can be rectified without harm. In business that may not be the case. In some instances a single mistake could cost lives.

The challenge is three-fold for an implementation:

  • Understand the real attitude towards mistake-making for those participating in the initiative.
  • Work with your sponsor to gauge the level of impact mistakes could make on the business.
  • Develop a strategy for making mistakes. This is a large and challenging topic. If you need to pursue this area, find out what Ed Briceño, CEO at Mindset Works is saying on this topic.

Treatment of high achievers

In the complex fast moving world of business, achievement and the history of achievement are ambiguous. The potential consequence of this is the tendency to stereotype around ‘good’ and ‘poor’ performers.

Many companies identify known ‘superstars’, high potentials, talent programmes or fast track programmes. If this describes your situation or what your company does, take a closer look at these individuals if they are part of your growth mindset programme.

  • Look for those who seem to make things look effortless, and are disdainful of colleagues who need to work hard to keep up.
  • If there are no visible and serious failures in their past, have they avoided challenges? This is a feature of a fixed mindset. 
  • Do they always meet their objectives? Look into who set those objectives and how they were measured. How can that be?

Professor Dweck has identified a behaviour called false growth mindset where individuals appear to have a growth mindset but in fact are fixed mindset individuals who are managing their image.

It is likely you will see this behaviour in some of your ‘high achievers’. It can be hard to address and deal with this behaviour. Here are some suggestions:

  • Include information on positive stereotyping and false growth mindset at the beginning of the project.
  • Ensure your sponsor and other leaders recognise that false growth mindset behaviour happens. The culture has encouraged it and now is the opportunity to look at how achievement and success is treated.
  • Persuade the owners of any high-achiever programme to include Halo effect, growth mindset and false growth mindset as part of their programme.

Mislabelling growth mindset initiatives

As growth mindset becomes more popular it is understandable that others who need to launch and sustain their own initiative will try to align with the growth mindset precepts.

However, if the initiative is communicating new behaviours, attitudes and values that don’t align, it can damage the impact of your growth mindset based initiative.

Ensure that any new initiatives that use the growth mindset precepts implement them correctly.

Final thoughts

There is little doubt that growth mindset will help change the way people view intelligence and potential. The consequences are far reaching for how organisations determine development paths, training curricula and career planning. All will need to be reviewed and updated and this will become the new initiatives for HR functions.

The war for talent, as McKinsey coined, means finding, hiring and development of human capital in a knowledge-based economy will become the source of competitive advantage. Growth mindset sets the scence.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read Just what could a growth mindset do for you?

3 Responses

  1. A really incitefull, frank
    A really incitefull, frank and honest article Pete. Having recently read “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed, it is easy to form opinions and beliefs on what appears to be a well reasoned arguments that can be influenced by cognitive bias. Grittiness is a point in question. As “grit” appeared to fit with my own thinking I was happy to accept this principal without challenge. I was really surprised to find that the King’s College London study found no correlation between grit and academic success as I had “labelled” my own achievements academically to grittiness as opposed to anything else. I am also glad you have highlighted that “organisations are confusing having a Growth Mindset with individual and organisational success” and that this is “understandable as it is often presented as the route map to success”. I believe this is an issue that could potentially lead to “Growth Mindset” being lablelled as the latest “fad”, which it isn’t. The points you have made will undoubtedly challenge individuals and organisations to think differently. In so doing, I believe you have highlighted some of the key challenges faced by HR functions in the future. Thank you for the insights provided Pete. Andy

  2. Hi Pete, for me this requires
    Hi Pete, for me this requires a real courageous shift in an organisations approach to the valuing and promotion of ‘talent’ alongside their attitude to mistake making.

    Several times I’ve experienced ‘high-potential’ individuals promoted because they’re ‘top talent’ only to go from hero to zero at the first sign of a mistake in their new role. ‘Maybe they’re not as good as we thought..’ conversations emerge….

    As you say, if we can encourage organisations to look at intelligence and potential with a Growth Mindset it could help unlock far more than traditional approaches.

    Great article, look forward to reading more…

  3. Pete, like your thinking.
    Pete, like your thinking. False mindset sounds a lot like Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s notion of over-confidence.

    Which organisations are you noticing are embracing growth mindset in their talent programs? Max.

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