In the 1970s, researcher Carol Dweck – now a professor of psychology at Stanford University – began researching children’s abilities to bounce back from failure. She found to her surprise that some children didn’t need to “bounce back” at all; for them, failure wasn’t something to cope with, but to learn from.

This finding sparked a few decades’ research on what Dweck later named two distinct mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

According to Heidi Grant, Mary Slaughter and Andrea Derler, a growth mindset is made up of “the dual belief that skills and abilities can be improved, and that developing your skills and abilities is the purpose of the work you do.”

The idea that we can continue to grow and develop our skills might seem obvious, but Dweck’s research revealed that a lot of people believe the opposite: that their level of talent or intelligence is somehow innate or predetermined, and that because of this, they cannot develop or grow.

The second part of the definition is also important, particularly in the business world. When the purpose of your work is to develop your skills and abilities, your focus shift: instead of constantly trying to prove how innately talented you are or always needing to look competent and polished, you can instead focus on learning and developing as an inherent part of everything you do. As a result, you’ll dare to make mistakes, try new things, adopt a beginner’s mindset and take risks – things which, in a VUCA economy, are increasingly understood to be important for facilitating ongoing commercial success.

Debunking the mindset myths

Dweck pointed out in a 2016 article for Harvard Business Review that as her ideas ballooned in popularity over the last few years, they also became somewhat misunderstood and distorted. Having a clear understanding of what the growth and fixed mindsets are is important to be able to fully utilise them the way many businesses such as Microsoft, who have integrated Dweck’s work into their culture, are doing.

Here are six myths or misconceptions about the growth and fixed mindsets, and the truth about each one.

  1. Myth: The mindsets are an either/or proposition. People mistakenly believe people either have a growth mindset or a fixed one. The truth is, we shift back and forth between the two, and all of us are susceptible to both mindsets. A person can hold a growth mindset about one area of their life or work and a fixed mindset in another area, or they may shift in and out of a growth mindset.
  2. Myth: A business can have a mindset. Organisations are made up of people. A group of people can largely hold similar mindsets, but we shouldn’t confuse this with “the business” having a fixed or growth mindset. A business in and of itself cannot think – only the people within it.
  3. Myth: You can have a “pure” growth mindset. People wrongly equate being open-minded or having a positive outset with a growth mindset. The two, Dweck says, are distinct.
  4. Myth: Having a growth mindset means always being positive. Being oriented towards growth and development is not about having a Pollyanna, ‘can-do!’ attitude one hundred per cent of the time. We need to acknowledge our limitations, challenges and obstacles. This is not about denial.
  5. Myth: A growth mindset automatically creates good outcomes. The truth is, growth and learning are often messy and not always linear. Some risks don’t work out. Pursuing innovation sometimes leads to a dead end.
  6. Myth: Anyone can do anything. While a fixed mindset assumes that talent and intelligence are fixed and immovable, one potential misconception associated with the growth mindset is that we can grow and develop limitlessly – that anyone can be anything. Think about the “1% talent, 99% hard work” adage that implies anything can be achieved if you just work hard enough. The truth is, we humans do have limits. We don’t all carry equal potential across the board. Yes, we can grow and develop, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we are also human.

It’s important that we understand the theory, so that we can accurately put it into practice in the teams and organisations in which we work.

In my next article, I’ll be sharing six strategies to help you adopt and embed a growth mindset for yourself and in your team.

References

Carol Dweck, What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means, HBR, 2016

https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means

Heidi Grant, Mary Slaughter and Andrea Derler, 5 Mistakes Companies Make About Growth Mindsets, HBR, 2018

https://hbr.org/2018/07/5-mistakes-companies-make-about-growth-mindsets

 

Elizabeth Reilly is an executive and leadership coach and co-founder of the Work Psychologists. Elizabeth’s commercial background allows her to quickly grasp the complexities of today’s organisations and bring clarity to the issues involved. Working in fast-paced and highly fluid environments – from entrepreneurial start-ups to FTSE 100 – she particularly relates to the challenges faced by senior executives and has supported business leaders and teams across a wide range of sectors, including advertising, banking and tech.