My interest in growth and learning led me to the book "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. It has opened my eyes to the ways in which we as humans tend to limit our own potential, both individually and in our organizations.
The concept of a fixed versus growth mindset is simple, yet the implications are massive.
According to Dweck, how you approach learning, and more specifically, how you approach yourself and others when it comes to growth, has the potential to drastically alter the direction and trajectory of your life and the lives of those around you. How you address challenges, how you cope with set-backs, and whether you begin to scratch the surface of your potential all hinges on your beliefs about growth and intelligence.
A fixed mindset is the belief that you have a fixed amount of intelligence and your skills and abilities cannot be developed. Granted, we all have natural limitations, but it assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are unchangeable, and success is somehow the affirmation of that inherent intelligence.
If your mindset is fixed, you may have thoughts such as…
"I'm just not good with numbers…"
"I'm not a natural athlete..."
"I'm not a people person…"
With a fixed mindset, striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs becoming a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. Regardless of the amount of practice and effort you put in, you believe that your growth and development is limited.
A growth mindset, alternatively, is about believing you can develop your abilities, intelligence, or skills. It thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. The growth mindset creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Thoughts look like…
"If I practice these equations, I can master them."
"If I focus on improving, I can become a great athlete."
"I can put myself out there and learn to work a room."
If you have this mindset, you know that with intentional and focused practice, you can achieve a level of expertise in most anything you put your mind to. While not everyone can become an Einstein or Beethoven, a person's full potential is rarely tapped into.
These two mindsets, which we tend to manifest from a very early age, determine a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.
The major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not some fixed trait or prior ability, but rather, it's purposeful engagement: where we place our focus and effort. It's not always the people who start out the smartest that end up the smartest.
These different mindsets show up in our lives in different ways. Let's look at a couple of different areas of life they impact and explore which mindset you may have in each of these areas.
Fear of Failure
I was recently on a call with a Fierce client, joined by my colleague Jaime Navarro, VP of Global and Channel Partners. During the call, she quickly built rapport with the client and helped them overcome their concerns in a way that if I had been leading the call, I don't feel like I would have been able to do so skillfully. I thought wow, I've been doing this for two and a half years and I don't lead calls this effectively. It would be natural to feel discouraged, but the truth is that I can learn from this experience. I had a choice in that moment to choose the path of growth or stay stuck in a fixed mindset and question my own self-worth.
It's human to be impacted by failure and to fall into the trap of negative self-talk. The important part is to be aware of it. When you enter into the fixed mindset, your constant objective is to prove that you're smart or talented. Any failure is unacceptable, and it's humiliating and debilitating. Your goal is never about growth because you believe that's not possible, so your goal becomes to validate and prove yourself.
The fixed mindset has even changed what failure means. To people living out of the fixed mindset, failure has been transformed from an action or event (I failed) to an identity (I'm a failure).
People with the growth mindset, however, seem to have a special talent for converting life's setbacks into future successes. When you adopt the growth mindset and you truly believe that your traits and skills can be improved on and developed, you'll start to have a great passion for learning.
How do I cope with set-backs and failure?
How do I cope with the set-backs or failures of others?
What kind of self-talk do you turn to?
When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failure may still hurt, but failures don't define them in a permanent way. If abilities can be expanded—if change and growth are possible—then there are still many paths to success.
Effort and Challenges
As I mentioned earlier, the major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not some fixed trait or prior ability, but rather, it's purposeful engagement.
When you enter into the fixed mindset, you believe that effort is a bad thing. If you have to push yourself and exert any level of effort, it must mean that you don't have a very high level of intelligence or talent. Effort, in this mentality, is for people with deficiencies. Risk and effort are seen as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing that they come up short in some way.
The fixed mindset is about avoiding effort and risk at all costs…the growth mindset is about moving toward concerted effort and challenges with the goal of development.
People with the growth mindset believe that even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. And what's so heroic, they would say, about having a gift? This mindset believes that you need to work your hardest at the things you love the most. Achieving a level of mastery is not only possible, but a certainty through continued, consistent practice and effort.
Question to consider:
Are there areas in your life where you avoid being challenged?
Do you believe that if you put in effort, it says something negative about your intelligence or who you are?
Do you believe that the people are you can't change or grow? Do you believe that how they are is how they will always be?
The Organizational Implications
Research into Enron following the scandal revealed exactly how a fixed mindset contributed to their downfall:
- Leaders in the organization had a fixed mindset, and they were revered for their "innate" intellect and ability.
- Everyone was deathly afraid of failure. It was a final evaluation of your competence and worth to the organization.
- A toxic culture was created while leaders were hungry to get ahead by pulling others down. It was a constant battle to prove superiority over your peers and deliver great personal results even at the expense of the organization.
- Ultimately, people were failing and too afraid to show it. It was covered up and all boiled over when the company was finally exposed.
Leaders with the fixed mindset carry over their beliefs to the people they lead. They believe that some people are inherently smart, talented or successful, and others are simply C-players that will never develop and never succeed. They believe there's not much, if any, influence they can have over that person's growth or development…so why bother? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
People in a growth mindset don't just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch. When you change the definition, significance, and impact of failure, it changes the deepest meaning of effort.
Great leaders believe in the growth mindset, they believe in the growth of intellect and talent, and they're fascinated with the process of learning. Great leaders create an environment of trust where it's clearly communication to their people, "I'm going to teach you, and I'm not going to judge your talent." They believe people can reach a higher potential.
So, what's really at stake for organizations?
Here's what you can expect when leaders have a fixed mindset:
- A lack of innovation and accountability
- A lack of vulnerability, trust, and honesty
- People don't seek new challenges and growth suffers
- Effort is seen as a bad thing, which creates a lack of productivity
- Political maneuvering, proving superiority, and seeking validation
- A toxic work culture
- Personal results come at the expense of organizational results
When this mindset infiltrates a company, the consequences are clear. It's critical for the health of the culture, the people within it, and the organization to find a solution.
Aligning with Fierce
The content in Fierce programs address and help shift participants from a fixed to a growth mindset.
Foundations, for example, shows you how to provoke learning, tackle touch challenges, strengthen relationships, and shift the context filter that you have for yourself and others.
Another program that addresses this issue directly is Feedback. Those with a fixed mindset are only interested in hearing feedback that reflect directly on their current abilities, but they tune out information that could help them learn and improve. They even showed no interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already filed it away in the failure category.
In Fierce Feedback, you develop a growth mindset by shifting your beliefs about feedback and learning how to give and receive feedback in a way that enriches relationships. You become attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skill, regardless of whether they'd gotten the question right or wrong—in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary trap of success and failure.
Organizations need to collectively move away from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. You can begin making changes by having a conversation with yourself, and then with your team.
In what ways do you personally hold a fixed mindset, and how can you shift towards growth instead?
Are there any policies or behaviors within your organization that promote a fixed mindset? If so, how can you and your team work together to change it?
Read about our programs if you're curious to know more and want to shift your organization from fixed to growth.