Mindset matters - what’s it all about and why it matters

Mindset
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It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

Do you find yourself stuck doing your job the way you always have? Are you well-suited to your role: it matches your talents and abilities, and you like to be in a role you can succeed at?

Or do you like a challenge, and prefer to take the risky role rather than the sure bet? These types of thoughts and strategies may be the result of your mindset. And you might want to review that mindset and your own beliefs in the light of research on talent and success.

Understanding your psychological world view

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career researching learning, and in particular exploring the "mindset" for success.

She describes a mindset as someone's entire psychological world, where everything has a different meaning depending on their beliefs.

Her studies show that people tend to have one of two sets of beliefs that create their mindset about work, learning and their own abilities. (As you read on, you might find it useful to consider your own approach to learning and challenges.)

Fixed mindset

Dweck describes people who hold a belief that talent, ability and intelligence are something you are born with as having a "fixed mindset." And you'll notice that much of our language about ability and performance is framed by this mindset: "He's very bright," "She's so talented," "She's a natural leader," "He has a gift for languages."

People coming from this mindset believe you either have it or you don't. And there are a range of behaviours which reflect this world view. First rule of a fixed mindset is look clever – at all times and at all costs.

And if you're not going to look clever, don't do it. In the face of any setbacks, hide your mistakes and conceal your deficiencies, because mistakes and deficiencies are permanent and that's going to be a black mark against you.

First rule of a fixed mindset is look clever – at all times and at all costs.

In studies, Dweck has found that people with a fixed mindset say, "The main thing I want when I do my work is to show how good I am at it." If this is you, you probably change jobs when the standards or requirements change, and you're always looking for roles that match your demonstrated abilities, where you know you can shine.

Because you're bringing what you believe to be your innate, natural talents, you'll tend to tackle the new role in a similar way to how you worked in the last one, moulding the role to your strengths and ways of working.

We frequently see these traits in senior leaders who introduce the same strategy that worked for them in their last company (irrespective of whether time has moved on, or the organisations are different.)

Employees with this mindset believe their performance is a result of their talents. They're concerned about their ranking and reputation, and are quick to compare their performance with peers.

In contrast, people who have a growth mindset believe that talent, abilities and intellect can be developed.

But they actually exhibit less persistence and less ability to learn from experience. Their mental framework provides no mechanisms for dealing with setbacks and it can mean they're reluctant to take on tricky assignments.

Their readiness to change jobs can be less about enthusiasm for a new challenge than unwillingness to persist with current problems when their performance may show up as less than excellent.

Growth mindset

In contrast, people who have a growth mindset believe that talent, abilities and intellect can be developed.

Their number-one rule is learn, learn, learn: they're the people leaning over your shoulder when the new software program's being demonstrated, the first ones to sign up for an optional seminar, the person who went on a course as part of their last holiday.

Mistakes are part of learning; deficiencies are part of being human and indicate you need to work harder

Growth mindset people say things like, "It's much more important for me to have a challenge than to be rated the best person."

They do care about rankings, but they care even more about having an interesting, challenging role where they're going to be getting into new areas and working with good people. For these people it is not about intelligence and talents; even if they have those traits in abundance, they are the start point rather than the end point.

Mistakes are part of learning; deficiencies are part of being human and indicate you need to work harder; they find out what they can do to learn, who they can learn from and where the testing opportunities are.

Dweck's studies show that people with a growth mindset work harder, learn from experience and are willing to take more risks to achieve results. After a test, they're not the people fist-pumping their high score but the ones grabbing the paper and saying, "Hang on, where did I go wrong?" (a trait demonstrated in one of Dweck's experiments).

You can recognise who's who in the workplace: fixed mindsetters are quick to claim the plaudits, share the news of successes, and propose rolling out the same plan again. They're impatient of introspection and would tend to say, "If it ain’t broke, don't fix it."

You'll never hear them say, "Tell me where I went wrong." It's all, "Let's move on…"

But growth mindsetters are definitely the people you want on a team if things haven't gone well: a major setback will be re-framed as a powerful learning opportunity. They're open to people moving into new roles they have no experience of, and they're ready to put themselves into unfamiliar but interesting situations.

 

Yes, you can change your mindset

If you recognise the qualities of growth mindset as the way you'd like to be, you're already on your way. Here are some simple steps for coaching yourself, which you can also adapt for leading your team.

Step 1: Learn to hear your fixed-mindset "voice"

As you approach a challenge you're very likely to hear the voice in your head saying things like:

  • "Are you sure you can do this?"
  • "You've never tried this before."
  • "It's going to be really embarrassing if you fail and people realise you thought you could do it."
  • "Maybe this just isn't for you."

If something goes wrong for you the voice might be saying:

  • "This would have been easy if you just had the talent for it."
  • "This happened last time, you're never going to get this."
  • "It's not too late to back out, and try to regain your reputation."
  • "Now everyone knows your limits."

If you come in for some criticism you might hear yourself saying: "I couldn't deliver the results without backup."

In relation to the person delivering the criticism, you might tell yourself, "They really don't know what this job involves."

Re-frame your inner voice, and consciously check yourself when you catch that type of internal voice.

If your boss is giving you some very specific, constructive feedback, you may be hearing, "I'm disappointed in you: I thought you were capable but now I see you're not."

Step 2: Your interpretation

Everyone is going to be presented with different opportunities, face different challenges and setbacks, and come in for some criticism. It's how you read them that's your choice. Fixed mindset: it's your talents or abilities that are lacking. Growth mindset: you need to work in a different way, try something new, make more effort, and expand your abilities.

Re-frame your inner voice, and consciously check yourself when you catch that type of internal voice. Replace, "Oh god, I can't do this," with, "It's always really scary in a new role, but in three months I'll be on top of it."

Instead of, "Keep your head below the parapet for this one: it's not going to do your career any good," try replacing it with, "If I don't try, I automatically fail and where's the dignity in that?"

Privately brainstorm a list of times when you've been successful. Write that list down, and keep it to hand. Update it. Visualise seeing yourself successfully completing the project, and get a feeling for how it's going to be on the other side of it.

And seek out the right kind of positive, open-minded people to support you. For a setback: instead of "You just haven't got what it takes," give yourself: "What's so wrong with trying? Successful athletes have to practise and fail to eventually get to the top."

Identify what you're passionate about and put your effort there. And keep a record of the milestones of your progress.

If you're getting criticism, instead of pushing it away make a real effort to view the situation from their perspective. Consciously tell yourself: "If I don't take responsibility, I can't get better. I can always learn something."

Step 3: Follow-up with the growth action

Build the habit of creating growth-mindset explanations, and learn to act on your new voice.

Consciously ask yourself: "What would the growth mindset action be here?" It will feel uncomfortable at first. It really helps to write down these ideas and intended actions to make them more tangible. And keep a note of your progress: seeing results is highly motivating.

Carol Dweck has found that people can change their mindset and beliefs, and that techniques like these are effective in making and maintaining the change.

The prevailing belief was that progression was based on intelligence and only the brightest would rise through the various grades

Below you'll find more details about Dweck’s work on applying mindset to talent strategy and how to turn your organisation into a growth mindset culture.

Mindset and the impact on talent strategy

Here we're looking at the collective mindset of an organisation, expressed through its talent strategy. Is it hindering success, and what can you do to create real changes?

What's the mindset of your organisation?

The prevailing mindset of your organisation is revealed by the language you use about people, and the processes that you use to identify, assess and develop them. For example:

  • Is talent commonly described as a selected, static group? Talent is a fixed trait that some people have.
  • Do you rely on measures of intelligence and other attributes? Measuring fixed abilities that people are born with.
  • Do you offer stretch assignments or projects with measures of progress? Giving people assignments that create growth in skills and experience.
  • Are mistakes seen as learning? Debriefing projects and extracting what can be applied for greater success next time.

In the past, talent strategy in most businesses was firmly based on a fixed mindset: find talented people and keep them in the company.

Managers defined potential leaders as people who were similar to themselves. They worked with a team developed in their own image, and the prevailing belief was that progression was based on intelligence and only the brightest would rise through the various grades and rites of passage.

Managers fostered by this kind of culture will be heard to say things like, "She's really smart: went to a top university, got the grades, flew through our entrance exam..." Or, "He's so clever he out-thinks everyone else: he's our go-to guy for new projects."

Why Fixed needs to be fixed

If the dominate mindset is fixed, change is seen as risky, painful and hard.

One of the dangers of a fixed-mindset approach is that it can create fear and threat, and in extreme cases even be abusive. Instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, leaders worry about being judged, and these feelings cascade through the company making it hard for courage and innovation to survive.

Managers who hold a fixed-mindset will find it hard to see the point of development programmes, feedback and coaching. They see talent as a static trait.

The implications for their talent strategy are clear: you need to find those naturally talented people, and then work to hire or retain them. Much else is a waste of money, effort and resources.

Why you should go for Growth

If the collective mindset of the organisation is set to "growth," the prevailing belief is that change is an opportunity to learn and grow.

The views of growth-mindset managers about the members of their teams tend to centre on how they approach their work. The ones who are viewed as high potential and worth investment will be the ones identified as hard workers who try new things, take risks and learn from their mistakes.

You'll hear them saying things like, "He messed up but he learnt from it." Or, "You have to admire her guts: this is the third assignment she's accepted where the stakes were high, but she came through."

The views of growth-mindset managers about the members of their teams tend to centre on how they approach their work.

These managers will be more inclined to give feedback, provide stretch assignments and coaching. You'll see that they themselves have a readiness to be a novice again and to review their performance in the light of new standards and changing business needs.

The thing about these individual managers' beliefs is they add up to a culture about talent, and that culture in turn becomes the way people are managed, assessed and developed.

Same thing, different intent

The same activity in a talent strategy can be creating growth or fear, depending on how it's presented and judged.

For example, in a growth-mindset culture stretch assignments are seen as recognising potential and giving an opportunity for development: "There are unique opportunities to learn in an emerging country."

But in a fixed-mindset culture they can be seen as tests of capability, or rites of passage: "We must test her out in an emerging country where she can show her smarts."

To create a growth-mindset culture, talent initiatives need to be set up in a different way.

How you support and develop the people will be subtly different:

  • Give feedback, but include coaching for success and change rather than observations of what was done "right" and what their weaknesses were.
  • Assessment interviews: ask about how the person would tackle a new assignment, how they would measure their success, what would indicate to them they were doing well.
  • Look for examples of seeking to learn, overcoming obstacles, seeing mistakes as learning and resilience to setbacks.
  • Present 360-type feedback and other kinds of assessment not as a static picture but as a snapshot in time with indicators for change and growth.
  • Back this up with coaching to make the change.
  • When introducing learning opportunities, be they formal programmes or on the job, present skills as learnable rather than "who's good at this?"
  • Don't talk about filling a gap in their skillset, but about opportunities to master skills.
  • Make the manager's role a resource or performance coach, not as the judge of performance.

A talent strategy based on growth will look across the whole workforce; it will seek out people who have a history of growth rather than just qualifications, high IQ or who've been educated in the right places; it will provide opportunities for job rotation and development of skills; and it will encourage employees to take on stretch assignments, new challenges and new roles.

Weaknesses will be seen as opportunities to learn and coaching will be embedded in every manager's role.

Research found that managers with a growth-mindset noticed improvement in their employees

Overall the strategy will convey the idea that the organisation values trying and dedication, not just ready-made talent.

The research on managers' mindsets

Research by Peter Heslin, who frequently collaborates with Carol Dweck, measured managers' mindsets. Their employees were then asked how much the manager helped analyse performance, gave useful feedback, acted as a sounding board, inspired confidence and supported new challenges.

Fixed-mindset managers did little or none of this.

They also found that managers with a growth-mindset noticed improvement in their employees, whereas those with a fixed-mindset did not: these managers appeared to be stuck in their initial impression.

In Heslin's study, employees evaluated their growth-mindset managers as providing better coaching for development. The research also found a link between mindset and the way managers coached.

Managers who had or adopted a growth-mindset were more willing to coach and give quality suggestions for improvement. When managers were trained to adopt a growth-mindset they were able to change. This lasted over time and the managers' ability to coach got better.

Why the mindset matters in business today

For managers to have an impact on an employee's mindset they should be praising effort rather than achievement. Plus encouraging risk, debriefing learning, and noticing progress.

Here are the key features of good praise.

Focus your praise on trying

The psychology of self-esteem encourages parents to believe that building self-esteem means praising intelligence. At work, employers speak admiringly of "being smart."

When intelligence was being praised, people didn't opt for a challenge.

Dweck says this doesn't work in high-change, high-challenge environments. She believes what you should do is give people the tools to become confident learners. 

Dweck found that when intelligence was being praised, people in her study didn't opt for a challenge – they wanted to work on something they knew they could do. When a hard challenge was given they lost their confidence, and their performance on an IQ test actually declined over the course of the study.

Those praised for effort performed better, were more confident about taking on difficult tasks and their performance improved.

Dweck says we need to praise the effort and struggle undertaken.

"Someone said to me recently: 'In your culture, struggle is a bad word.' And it's true: we never say 'Oh I had a fantastic struggle today,' but we should." 

The predominant organisational culture is usually that tasks should appear to be accomplished effortlessly, demonstrating that the employee is operating with ease and complete mastery of their area of expertise.

Any kind of additional effort or stress usually remains well-hidden, after hours, and it's the seamlessly-completed project that gets singled out for commendation.

The predominant organisational culture is usually that tasks should appear to be accomplished effortlessly.

But Dweck says managers would do their staff a greater service by noticing and commenting on their efforts and the challenges they have overcome.

"That was a phenomenal struggle" sends a signal that effort is valuable and admired.

She says managers should praise persistence in the face of setbacks: "That was really difficult and it didn't stop you."

Praise finding a strategy, and trying out new strategies: "That was a good idea to look for new ways to contact our customers." And praise for being up for challenges: "Wow, you chose a really tough one, that's fantastic – you're going to learn a lot from that."

Encourage employees to take on challenges, she advises: to enjoy effort, and bounce back from setbacks. Then they will build their own confidence and self-esteem by knowing how to deal with work, and they'll become challenge-seeking and resilient. 

Can mindsets change?

If you're now sitting with your head in your hands saying"I can see all our managers have a fixed- mindset: our talent strategy is never going work," you're falling into a fixed-mindset yourself!

You can turn this around.

Simple changes can influence the mindset of employees and their managers.

When you leave mindsets alone they are stable: people's beliefs are not challenged and so they continue to think and act like they always have. But Dweck has experimented with changing fixed-mindset beliefs to growth-mindset beliefs with some success.

The interesting part about Dweck and Heslin's research for companies is that simple changes can influence the mindset of employees and their managers. In their work they trained managers to shift their beliefs in a short workshop which included exercises like thinking of times when they learnt something new, identifying people whose performance had changed for the better, and pointing to examples in the company where people had learnt from challenges or initial failure and gone on to be successful.

Running simple but powerful workshops can turn managers' beliefs from fixed to growth, and the evidence seems to be that the change persists. Workshops can be as short as 90 minutes. Giving managers' exercises to do which get them to notice growth in themselves, and others, are highly effective in shifting their beliefs.

After the training Heslin and Dweck found their managers coached more, gave more performance suggestions, and noticed the efforts of their employees. They checked the shift in beliefs six weeks later and the growth mindset was still in place.

So, to move beyond the fine statements in the annual report and develop a truly effective talent culture within your organisation, understand the mindset of your managers. And to develop adaptability, learning and growth make the shift to praising effort, risk-taking and the willingness to take on a challenge.

Carol Dweck’s latest research focuses on the impact of mindset on productivity in organisations. You can read more in our book Brain-savvy Business or this article

It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

References

Here are references to the science mentioned in the article:

Carol Dweck. How Your Mindset Impacts Your Success in Business and in Life: Carol Dweck Talking to Karen Elmhirst. HR.com
Peter Heslin, Don VandeWalle and Gary Latham (2006). Keen to help? Managers' implicit person theories and their subsequent employee coaching. Personnel Psychology 59.

About Jan Hills

Jan Hills is the author of several books including Brain-savvy Woman. You can read more on creating an inclusive culture in the book. Her company Head Heart + Brian uses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development, gender consulting and inclusion. 
 

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