What is a Growth Mindset and how can you develop one?

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One of the most popular concepts recognised for facilitating our ability to develop is a Growth Mindset. Carol Dweck coined the term over 30 years ago through her work with children and it’s an idea that has caught on in the business world too. But what actually is a Growth Mindset, why is it useful to have one and how can you and your leaders develop one?

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile” - Vince Lombardi.

While others may have shared this sentiment before him, it is Vince Lombardi, NFL Head Coach who is most famous for this quote. Lombardi was right. Some individuals may have a more natural tendency to be leaders, but great leadership relies on the ability to grow and develop.

What is a Growth Mindset?

A Growth Mindset is the assumed antithesis of a Fixed Mindset. People with a Fixed Mindset tend to think that their abilities cannot be changed – when they cannot solve a problem, they attribute this to not having the skills so stop trying. People with a Growth Mindset tend to think that their abilities are capable of increasing. If they can’t do something their approach is not ‘I can’t do it’ but ‘I can’t do it yet’. When faced with a difficult problem, they continue trying, understanding that the ability to solve it will come with effort.

In truth, a ‘pure’ Growth Mindset and complete absence of a Fixed Mindset does not exist. We are all at risk of falling victim to our inner critics. When we face challenges, are criticised, or fall short of the achievements of our peers, we can easily feel insecure or defensive, reverting to our fixed mindsets of ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. However, the ability to silence that inner critic and adopt a Growth Mindset is key for leaders. 

Why should we strive for a Growth Mindset?

Research has shown that those who demonstrate a Growth Mindset are more likely to persist and develop the things they’re not good at, which ultimately leads to better performance (1). 

What’s more, our rapidly changing environments constantly present us with new challenges we may not yet know how to handle. A Growth Mindset isn’t just nice to have to continue to develop your skills for the current environment, it’s a necessity to enable us to successfully navigate through ongoing change, where leaders often have to move forwards without all the answers. If leaders demonstrate a Fixed Mindset, their response to change may be: ‘I don’t know how to lead in these unprecedented circumstances, I can’t do it’. It’s easy to see why leaders who are able to adopt more of a Growth Mindset are a more attractive option to have at the helm, in times of change their response may be: ‘I have the ability to learn and adapt to ensure I remain successful in this new context’.

How to develop a Growth Mindset 

There’s no magic switch that enables us to go from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset. However, there are some methods you can apply to your own thinking and behaviour to become more Growth Mindset orientated.

  1. Become more self-aware – in an earlier article, I identified self-awareness as a key leadership skill. Self-awareness is critical to a Growth Mindset, as it allows us to recognise when we may be holding Fixed Mindsets about our own capability or the capability of others, which are unhelpful. Recognising these Fixed Mindsets and biases allows us to take action to challenge these thoughts. 
  2. Set yourself challenging goals – by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone regularly, you are continually challenging your Fixed Mindset that you can only perform within your current boundaries. You will start to see that you can successfully operate outside of your comfort zone and a Growth Mindset will start to become your default approach. 
  3. Reframe your goals as learning goals - many of us may have goals to achieve a specific outcome - ‘I will boost sales by 10%’. This is a performance goal. While they can be useful, the trouble with performance goals is, when we meet them, we stop trying and we may even cut corners to achieve them. A learning goal such as ‘I will learn how to hone my pitching skills’, encourages ongoing development. Individuals with learning goals are more open to feedback and the benefits of these goals are more enduring, as there is no endpoint to the development.
  4. Don’t let yourself be threatened by others you perceive to be better than you, identify what you can learn from them – one scenario that has us quickly defaulting back to our Fixed Mindsets is the perceived threat of someone who is better than us. As the saying goes ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ and it is also the thief of the opportunity to develop. Rather than being threatened by others who you perceive to be better than you, identify the skills they have that you don’t possess yet and think about how you can learn from them. 
  5. Recognise when you have Fixed Mindsets about people in your team and challenge these - not only do we hold Fixed Mindsets about our own capability, we are also guilty of holding Fixed Mindsets about the people we work with. Check what unconscious biases may be underpinning your Fixed Mindsets and challenge yourself to ensure you are being inclusive in your leadership approach.    
  6. Praise the effort of your teams - granted, if someone spent a week on a task that should have taken a few hours, it is not helpful to reward the unnecessary effort. What we mean by this is, when a goal is successfully met, it is critical to reward the learning and progress and to emphasise the processes that yield the goal, such as seeking help from others and trying new strategies, rather than simply acknowledging and rewarding the goal itself. Similarly, when a goal hasn’t been met, but successful effort and changes have been made in approach, this should also be praised. The outcome may have been outside of the individual’s control. By praising effort and progress in approach, the individual will continue to persevere and apply learnings in future scenarios, enabling them to reach successful outcomes.

Having a Growth Mindset is key to leaders’ enduring success. We’ll leave you with this closing question: What is one thing you can’t do yet and what are you going to do about it?

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  1. Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
  2. Mindset-Updated Edition: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential, Dr Carol S. Dweck.

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