Why Should My Leaders Adopt a Growth Mindset?

Dr. Carol Dweck first used the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe people's fundamental beliefs about learning and intelligence. When leaders and employees believe they can learn from experiences and people interactions, they have a growth mindset. When they bring their perspectives and attitudes to a situation or interaction and close their mind to learning, it is a fixed mindset at work. Can a fixed mindset be changed? Yes, it can, and organizations are wise to develop leadership and a workforce with a growth mindset. A growth mindset is needed to excel in today's business environment. In the following sections, we consider the various aspects of fixed and growth mindsets and the importance of a growth mindset to good leadership.  

What is a growth mindset, and why do we want to instill it?  

A mindset is a person's mental attitude, inclinations, or way of thinking. It is everything you think, feel, and believe. Carol Dweck identified two kinds of mindset, fixed and growth, but people are usually not firmly one or the other. They have a mindset that blends features of both, or they shift from one to the other, depending on the circumstances. Ultimately, getting your leaders to adopt a growth mindset is good for themselves, employees, and the organization. 

Features of the Two Mindsets 

According to Dweck, people tend to believe they "are the way they are," making change difficult because of the acceptance of the status quo. People with a growth mindset recognize they can continuously learn and change, making personal growth controllable. Your leaders bring a mindset to the workplace, which influences how they approach employees and situations.   

For example, unconscious bias is a fixed mindset that influences how a person listens to diverse employees or employees from different generations and how they recognize the value of feedback. A person with a growth mindset appreciates the unique perspectives of different generations or diverse people and is willing to listen, change the personal thought process, and adopt new ideas.  

Fixed Mindset Characteristics

  • Believes "we are the way we are" but always wants to project a positive image 
  • Avoids challenges to avoid the risk of failing and harming a self-image 
  • Gives up easily when faced with challenges and barriers 
  • Ignores negative feedback or interprets it as an insult rather than a learning opportunity 
  • Sees effort as unpleasant because of the risk there are no rewards 
  • Uses the success of others to say it was luck or the wrong actions, but not an effort 
  • Likely to fail to achieve full potential because there's no learning from feedback 

Characteristics of a Growth Mindset 

  • Believes intelligence can be developed, so has a desire to improve 
  • Not afraid to meet challenges because learning occurs 
  • Does not get discouraged by challenges and barriers because failure is an opportunity and not damaging to self-image 
  • Learns from the feedback from others and doesn't internally integrate criticism or negative feedback 
  • Sees effort as needed and useful, even if a failure occurs, because it leads to developing new knowledge and skills 
  • Is inspired and motivated by the success of others  
  • Develops a positive feedback loop for continuous improvement  
growth mindset

The flow of the Growth Mindset 

A growth mindset recognizes that the value of someone who has a different skill set is based on effort and not just achievement. A growth mindset allows someone to be open to relationships with people with different perspectives, life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and education. Advice and feedback in any situation, including during problem-solving, is considered an opportunity to learn. The growth mindset drives motivation and achievement and flows in the following way. 

  • Belief – I can get smarter 
  • Goal – Learning 
  • Effort – makes me stronger 
  • Outcome – Spends more time and effort  
  • Result – Higher achievement 

Ideally, all your leaders have a growth mindset to help themselves reach their full potential; as role models, they encourage employees to develop a growth mindset; and enhance business performance by increasing workforce resilience. People with a growth mindset also experience benefits in their personal lives. 

How can we address this idea with our workforce? How do we get started?  

Everyone can and should, especially your leaders, develop a growth mindset through honest self-assessment and intentional use of strategies known to work.  

Recognizing that a person usually has some of the characteristics of fixed and growth mindsets, the focus is on addressing the fixed mindset.   

Neuroscience research has discovered neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. This is the ability of the nervous system to change its response to stimuli by reorganizing its functions, structure, or connections. Stimuli refer to activities, like interactions with people or projects. The brain can reorganize its structures and the functioning of the neural networks. Neuroplasticity is the result of experience, learning, and the formation of memories. All brains, even mature ones, can experience plasticity from learning. This enables people to survive in the face of unpredictable circumstances.   

Brain plasticity research has discovered that if you believe you can grow or change your brain, you will think and behave differently due to greater awareness. You can rewire your brain and gain more control over your life. Through practice, you strengthen existing connections and grow new connections in the brain.  

Each person first identifies the fixed mindset characteristics possessed because this is the mindset holding people back from realizing their potential. For example, is the person critical rather than open to new ideas? Is feedback viewed negatively and rejected or viewed as an opportunity to learn? When there are setbacks, does the person give up or persist? When effort is required to overcome challenges, is the perspective one in which the effort is fruitless or a path to learning and skills mastery

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Getting started with promoting the development of a growth mindset in organizational leaders is a process.   

  • Begin by introducing the idea to senior leaders. Help them understand that a growth mindset encourages the development of a positive organizational culture and enhanced employee engagement. Once accepted at the executive level, identify one or more champions of the growth mindset, so there are leaders who promote and role model it. 
  • Neuroscience research has found three important components that help with culture change and promote the growth mindset over the fixed mindset. From a leadership perspective, they are priorities, habits, and systems, and they must be in alignment. 
  • Priorities: Leaders must agree on priorities or what really matters to change behaviors; otherwise, they aren't working toward a common goal and will deliver conflicting messages to employees.  
  • Habits – Developing the right habits that model priorities are important to developing a growth mindset. For example, a leader may want to develop a strong employee voice but leaves frontline workers out of the feedback communication system. Habits are feedback conversations and reflect a willingness to take risks. 
  • Systems – The organization's systems should support brain development. For example, a leader adds frontline workers to the communication system. Each time he or she gets feedback from the frontline workers, the inclusion of the workers triggers the leader to remember to check for new feedback from these employees each time. There is a link between feedback and inclusion. The talent system, including hiring and performance evaluations, should create the conditions for developing a growth mindset.  
  • Launch a communications campaign that includes leadership self-assessment and leadership skills-building training. Skills training is crucial to success because leaders must understand the full and accurate meaning of a growth mindset. It involves more than deciding that he or she has a growth mindset. Leaders must deeply believe in their ability to change brain growth and believe in the ability of all employees to do the same. Leadership training should include a variety of tools and approaches to support developing a new way of thinking.  
  • Don't approach the effort as a one-and-done campaign. Developing a growth mindset takes time, and then it needs nurturing to maintain it.  
growth vs fixed mindset

What are the benefits of this training? What can we expect from it?  

One of the many benefits of developing the growth mindset in organizational leaders is that it can encourage employees to also develop the growth mindset. A leader improves personal and team performance, which cascades to higher business performance. Other benefits include: 

  • Higher employee engagement because leaders learn to listen to their employees 
  • Higher trust in management 
  • Employees are given more opportunities for learning because the leader understands how a growth mindset promotes success. 
  • Employee inclusion and belonging are strengthened through a stronger employee voice as leaders listen to unique perspectives. 
  • Employee retention improves 
  • Innovation is promoted because leaders and employees are more willing to express themselves and provide feedback
  • Team productivity increases because people are not judged or measured based on the leader's fixed expectations 
  • Organizational culture supports continuous employee learning. 
  • The organization is more agile and adaptable because people are not complacent, trapped in mediocrity, or discouraged from finding new ways to problem-solve. 
  • A greater sense of shared purpose is developed in people. 
  • Employees are recognized for their effort and improvement and not just for achievement. 
  • Continual change and disruptions are viewed as opportunities rather than problems, important in this day and age of change that ranges from digital disruptions to shifting global markets to changing workforce demographics. 
  • Increases emotional intelligence in leaders, so they understand how to be personally more creative and how to help people connect with their purpose. 


Example of Adopting a Growth Mindset 

A company wanted to develop a growth mindset culture to increase agility in work to support a constantly evolving marketplace. In addition, annual or periodic performance reviews were proving ineffective, so the company wanted to rely more on people having conversations regularly. This required people to be more willing to ask and accept feedback as a learning process for changing behaviors.   

First, the company brought in an organizational development consultant to get senior leader buy-in. This was followed by bringing all other managers onboard and developing their leadership coaching skills. The communication strategy became the leadership priority for the organization. Senior leaders, managers, and supervisors would engage employees in various ways to promote conversations and would talk about the growth mindset at every opportunity. Employee voice was strengthened as employees felt empowered to share their ideas, thoughts, strategies, solutions, examples, and experiences.   

The initial effort to get people talking and thinking about a growth mindset is followed by a larger campaign that involved the talent management system. In this larger campaign, growth mindset principles were embedded in leadership development, developing coaching leadership, talent training and development, the hiring process, performance conversations, job descriptions, and career moves. Leaders change their language to include reaffirming statements, using words like "yet." For example, a leader tells an employee, "You haven't found a solution yet." They don't use words like "failure" and instead talk about learning to improve.   

Over time, the employees began to collaborate more as they used growth mindset thinking. This was visible proof that people were thinking differently and incorporating different behaviors in the workplace.  

Growth Mindset Changes the Culture 

Developing a growth mindset in leaders which extends to the workforce requires establishing the conditions for it. Shifting to a growth mindset is a process. It doesn't happen with one initiative or one meeting. It takes persistence, consistency in leadership messaging, and employee systems that offer the right opportunities for behavior changes like increased collaboration. Given the fact this is a transformation process, many companies begin by accessing management consulting services. The organization's culture doesn't develop a growth mindset. Developing the growth mindset changes the culture, and the culture then supports the growth mindset among leaders and employees moving forward.  

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