In my previous article, we explored the difference between what Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck has termed the ‘growth mindset’ and the ‘fixed mindset’ – two contrasting frames of mind that dramatically impact how an individual perceives and makes sense of failure, their potential and intelligence, the learning process, obstacles they encounter, creativity and risk taking. The potential these mindsets have to impact performance in the business world is massive, hence the importance of getting a clear sense of what each one means.
However, understanding the growth and fixed mindsets is one thing; knowing how to actually develop and embed a growth mindset is another. There are a number of ways to do this, and there is no one-size-fits-all formula. It is down to each individual to experiment and see what works for them. The following six strategies may offer a helpful starting point for doing just that.
- Pay attention to both mindsets and decide which one you want to be in: You can develop the motivation to deepen and develop a growth mindset by paying attention to your experience of each one. In the fixed mindset, we tend to become more defensive and insecure, which shuts down our willingness or capacity to take risks, be creative, make mistakes or risk looking silly. This is an unpleasant experience for most of us. The ‘payoff’ is that we perhaps feel more in control. In the growth mindset, we usually feel more energised, focused, expansive, creative and engaged. Needless to say, this is a much more enjoyable experience, but it feels riskier, too, as you dance at the edge of your comfort zone. Pay attention, decide which experience you want, and let that spur you on.
- Notice when you’re in a fixed mindset: Paying daily attention to your thoughts and attitude, emotions, and even the sensations in your body when you’re in different states can help you get to know which mindset you’re in. Do you notice yourself falling into black and white thinking? Are you tense and stressed? Are you thinking that you “just can’t do it” or anxiously comparing yourself to others? In each of these cases you might be in a fixed mindset. Once you identify it, you can do something about it.
- Become aware of your triggers: Each of us has certain fixed mindset ‘triggers’ – contextual or environmental factors that will stir anxiety and put us into a fixed mindset. We may be sensitive to criticism or challenge, for example, or a defensive reaction in a competitive environment. Become aware of what triggers you so that next time it happens, you can notice it and then consciously do something different.
- Experiment and discover how to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset: Once you recognise that you’ve been triggered into a fixed mindset, experiment with ways to shift out of it. Simply acknowledging, “I’m in a fixed mindset right now” can help. Some people find working with their thoughts useful – catching the thoughts characteristic of the fixed mindset and turning it around. You could also get a ‘reality check’ from a trusted colleague, mentor or friend – someone who can help you shift your perspective. For other people, going outside, changing their scenery or moving their body can work wonders. There is no one size fits all. Find what works for you.
- Become aware of what triggers a fixed mindset (and what cultivates a growth mindset) within your team: If you’re a leader, you need to be aware of yourself and also your team and/or direct reports. Find ways to build reflective, collaborative spaces where people can express their creativity, take appropriate risks and get feedback.
- Develop a growth-oriented culture: Dweck and her colleagues found that organisations that play the ‘talent game’, encouraging overly competitive environments, also foster a lot of fixed mindset behaviours. Reflect on the wider culture and scrutinise the places where you may be oriented towards a fixed mindset – then play with how you can shift the focus towards a growth mindset.
A growth-oriented culture will make it safe to risk making mistakes. This will be celebrated, so that instead of people thinking that they look incompetent, ignorant or unskilled, they will see mistakes as evidence that they are learning and growing. Fostering a culture where mistakes are welcome as part of the growth process can offset people’s temptation to put on a ‘persona’ and fake their way through the day. The result will be genuine growth.
Applying Dweck’s work on the growth mindset is becoming increasingly widespread. It doesn’t magic challenges away – the world is still incredibly fast paced, change is occurring constantly at breakneck speed, and the future is uncertain.
It is for precisely those reasons that adopting a growth mindset is vital. It makes us able to respond and operate within an ever-changing world with genuine creativity, openness to learning and change, and perseverance. With practice, we can become like the children that once surprised Dweck in her research: thriving, not buckling, in the face of tremendous challenges and, yes, even in moments when we fail.
Carol Dweck, What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means, HBR, 2016
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.