I first heard about Mindset and the work of Carol Dweck from Matthew Syed, he was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended.  His book Bounce in which he talks about Dweck, is an entertaining read and a good introduction to the world of mindsets.  Most often referred to in the context of education, mindset is defined by Carol Dweck as having two forms – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, can be cultivated through effort. Students with a growth mindset understand they can get smarter through hard work, the use of effective strategies, and help from others. It is contrasted with a fixed mindset – the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait that is set in stone, at birth.

In a well-intentioned manner, parents, teachers and employers all unconsciously reinforce the fixed mindset every time they tell someone they are clever, smart or talented – rather than rewarding the effort and recognising the strategies used.  It happened to me.  I was told I was smart, and then when things got hard I gave up.  I didn’t have a math brain.  Physics just wasn’t my thing.  The encouragement I had received early on had the unintentional effect of turning me off.

In her TED talk, The Power of Believing You Can Improve, Dweck gives many examples of how growth is the mindset we want instilled in our children.

To demonstrate – in one study, a group of below-average math students, each of whom had a fixed mindset, were predicted to have decreasing grades.  These students were taught a growth mindset, by being shown that every time they pushed out of their comfort zone – to learn something new and difficult – the neurons in their brain would form new, stronger connections; and over time they could get smarter.  After this intervention their declining grade trajectory was reversed!


Blackwell, Trzesnievski & Dweck 2007

Aside from the amazing changes that could be made to our educational systems, a key lesson here is how quickly mindsets can be changed – in children at least.

Taking this into the corporate world, the fixed mindset abounds.  As far back as 1998 we were talking about a “War for Talent”.

“According to a year long study conducted by a team from McKinsey & Co. … the most important corporate resource over the next 20 years will be talent: smart, sophisticated businesspeople who are technologically literate, globally astute, and operationally agile. And even as the demand for talent goes up, the supply of it will be going down.”  Fast Company, July 1998

They weren’t wrong – but their use of the word “talent” hasn’t helped us.  Companies often look for “pre-packed” talent, like buying in a new striker for a premiership football team. We use the word “talent” all the time.  Talent Director.  Talent programme.  The word “talent” pervades, and sadly just that word on its own will encourage a fixed mindset.

What does this have to do with coaching?  It’s often the obvious choice for developing part of an organisation’s “talent” when the individual in question doesn’t have the particular “talent” that is needed.

Researching mindset, I’ve realised that many of my coaching engagements have been about a change from a fixed to a growth mindset. It was exciting to discover such a useful perspective; but it’s also easy to get carried away.  As human beings, we generalise; and it’s not difficult to think that a person has a fixed or a growth mindset everywhere. This is incorrect.  Mindset is context-specific.  For example, I may have had a fixed mindset about mathematics but not about sports.

Reading Dweck, it’s also easy to think that mindset is everything.  It’s true that those with a fixed mindset will find certain feedback threatening to their self-image; but so will narcissists!

With those caveats, I’m finding it a wonderfully useful lens through which to view coaching engagements.  I think we’ve all had the experience of a leader who has always found their “natural talent” carried them through; but suddenly, they face a new context and challenge, where their customary flair just doesn’t cut it.

In these situations, those of a fixed mindset feel threatened, or they suddenly lose all confidence.  It’s one thing to find out something is a challenge when you’re 16.  It’s very different when you’re in your 40s or 50s, and have been able to handle everything thrown at you for the past 30 years by dint of your natural gifts!

This is where a coach comes into their own.  By nature, I think that an experienced coach comes with a growth mindset.  It’s not our place to recognise and reward for being smart.  We encourage responsibility, and with that comes effort.  While we don’t tend to be directive, we can teach a growth mindset for the challenges the coachee faces.

It’s also important that we’re non-judgmental, as being judged can be a real threat to the fixed-mindset individual.  In a non-threatening environment, we help leaders develop new perspectives and strategies. We naturally create environments and ask questions that encourage a growth mindset.

I thoroughly recommend “Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck for any coach, or those responsible in any way for people development.  If anyone can come up with a good replacement word for “talent” that doesn’t encourage a fixed mindset, I’ll be really glad to hear it.  My own search continues.

Executive Coach Gregor Findlay has been helping leaders and teams to deliver measurably improved performance through his coaching since 2001.