What Is a Growth Mindset?

What is a growth mindset? And how can having a fixed mindset affect your business? Find out the answers to these questions and more.
August 30, 2017

To answer the question, what is a growth mindset, one needs to start with its opposite: a fixed mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe that basic qualities—such as intelligence or talent—are carved in stone. They consider them fixed or ingrained traits. This may cause them to believe that talent alone creates success, which in turn can lead them to spend the bulk of their time proving their intelligence or talents to others rather than developing themselves.

By contrast, those who have a growth mindset believe that people can be developed through consistent effort, hard work and dedication. As Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, a pioneer in this field, puts it in the 2016 updated version of her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a growth mindset "creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishments. Virtually all great people have these qualities."

Research by culture-shaping firm Heidrick & Struggles shows that there's a strong correlation between a growth-mindset culture of development and positive behaviors in organizations. In collaboration with Stanford University and several other U.S. universities, the firm conducted a two-year study (which is ongoing) involving several Fortune 1000 companies.

The study found people in growth-mindset cultures have 47 percent more trust in their company, and are 34 percent more likely to feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the future of the company. What's more, of those who believe they are in a culture of development, 65 percent agree that their companies support risk-taking and 49 percent believe their organizations foster innovation.

Consider giving people challenging opportunities to test out their abilities. Raise the bar once in awhile to help them develop.

Establishing a growth-mindset culture can be a strong strategic move. Not having a growth-mindset culture may result in falling out of step with changes in the modern business landscape, whether it's, for example, new technology and systems, fast-paced operational environments or the need for connectivity.

Chances are some of your competitors have adopted a growth mindset. You may risk falling behind by allowing a fixed mindset to limit your growth.

How To Establish A Growth-Mindset Culture

An important step in pursuing business growth is establishing the right company culture, a culture permeated by a growth mindset. Done right, this may translate into a culture of continuous learning, of mastering valuable skills and of resilience. It can develop purpose-driven employees who can help you grow your business.

What is a growth mindset at an operational level? Consider these five actions that you can take to establish a growth-mindset culture.

1. Give people permission to fail.

Those with a fixed mentality may believe failure defines people, but a culture that promotes a growth mindset views failures as temporary setbacks and as learning opportunities.

Make it safe for people to be transparent. For example, a growth-mindset culture encourages people to be upfront about their weaknesses as areas for development. A fixed-mindset culture, on the other hand, can breed fear of being judged or labeled a failure. This may prompt people to hide their weaknesses rather than proactively work on improving themselves.

2. Encourage intelligent disobedience.

Intelligent disobedience is a concept that originates from seeing-eye dogs who are trained to know when they must disobey commands from a blind person that can put the person in harm's way, such as crossing the street when a car is approaching.

Similarly, you might want to give people latitude to break the rules when it makes sense, for example, to help a customer. This is not about encouraging people to arbitrarily disobey a company rule for its own sake. It's about allowing people to use their judgement to decide when, for example, an established rule or procedure actually hinders the organization, rather than helps it in a given situation.

Encouraging intelligent disobedience can signal that you trust your employees' training, knowledge and judgment. It's having a growth mindset in the treatment of your employees. A fixed-mindset culture, on the other hand, may view blind conformity as the safest route. This may sap creativity and can hinder growth.

3. Give people stretch goals.

When asking yourself what is a growth mindset, perhaps the most telling answer is that in a growth-mindset culture, people are challenged to try out new or improved ways to accomplish their work.

Consider giving people challenging opportunities to test out their abilities. Raise the bar once in awhile to help them develop. These kinds of initiatives can signal that you welcome people venturing into unfamiliar ground and getting out of their comfort zone of "same old, same old" to make sure that they're always learning.

In a fixed-mindset culture, people end up sticking with what they know to preserve their confidence, at the expense of much-needed growth. They don't put themselves out on the line; they hide behind the comfort and safety of the tried and true. They may avoid seeking new challenges because it's humiliating to experience setbacks within a fixed-mindset culture. It may signal to others that they're not who they portray themselves to be. Setbacks in such a corporate environment can give rise to feelings of shame rather than be seen as a stepping stone to growth.

4. Hire and promote managers who have a growth mindset.

Digging deeper in understanding what is a growth mindset can also entail taking a close look at who you put at the helm. Your management team can have an impact on your ability to attract and retain the right people.

As Professor Dweck writes, "Fixed-mindset leaders, like fixed-mindset people in general, live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the company is simply a platform for this." Such leaders can be a demotivating influence in a team.

Leaders with a fixed mindset can also have a stunting effect on employees with potential who may be left behind to stagnate while the leader focuses exclusively on a chosen few who are deemed superior to others in talent and intelligence.

Effort, encouragement and masterful coaching can help anyone acquire skills. Consider promoting managers who can be "talent whisperers" in your business. As Bernard Banks, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University puts it, "bet on everyone."

5. Help people understand what a growth-mindset culture looks like.

Consider speaking from the heart about the value of having a growth-mindset culture. A growth mindset can fling the door wide open to give everyone a shot at success.

  • It gives everyone a license to learn and to grow on the job.
  • It preaches that all skills are learnable.
  • It presents managers as teaching agents—managers who build confidence in everyone's ability to learn and grow.
  • It promotes coaching and mentoring in every corner.
  • It offers opportunities to attend workshops, online learning, access to relevant resources, new on-the-job learning experiences, apprenticeships and any other workplace education avenues.
  • It encourages criticism as valuable growth-promoting feedback.
  • It telegraphs that the company values continuous learning and persistence, not just the ready-made genius or talent.

So what is a growth mindset? In a nutshell, it's surrounding yourself with people who are fully in the growth zone and giving them the tools, the support and the confidence to grow.  And this in turn can have a beneficial impact on your company's ability to grow and succeed.

Read more articles on company culture.

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