Why Trying to Look Smart Is a Dumb Strategy

Having a "growth" mindset vs. a "fixed" mindset can make the difference between success and failure.
February 27, 2013

Do you believe that talent and intelligence can be cultivated, or that you’re just born with it? According Stanford psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, your answer could have a massive impact on your future success, and that of your business. 

It turns our that organizations with what Dweck calls a “growth mindset”—ones that support growth, risk-taking, and learning—tend to be exponentially more innovative than those that have a “fixed mindset” (e.g. those that believe talent and intelligence is fixed).

I talked to Dweck about what we can learn from her research to become better managers, better innovators, and better people.

How does being afraid of failure impact people’s ability to innovate?

It makes you afraid of being judged, and what innovation or creativity requires is that you do things that haven’t been done before.  And that you stick to them until you succeed.  If you have a “fixed mindset”—the belief that you have a certain, fixed amount of  (perhaps limited) ability--you are afraid to choose hard tasks. You think: “What if I don’t succeed? People will think I’m not as smart as I want to be, as I want them to think I am. 

In our research, when we give people the choice to go back to something they’ve already done well, or something they haven’t done well at, the ones with the fixed mindset go back to things they already know. In that scenario, you are not stretching forward, or stepping out of your comfort zones. You’re really just concerned with looking smart.

People in a fixed mindset think that great effort, great struggle, means that you are not smart. It’s the notion that: “If I were smart, if I were talented, it would just come to me.”

But people in a “growth mindset” enjoy the effort, welcome the struggle. They understand that innovation requires it.

How do these two mindsets—a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset—play out when we’re dealing with setbacks? When we don’t succeed right away?

In a growth mindset, you don’t always welcome the setback--maybe you were hoping to move forward--but you understand that it’s information on how to move forward better next time. It is a challenge that you are determined to surmount. In a fixed mindset, a setback calls your ability into question. Everything is about: “Am I smart? Am I not smart?”  But if you’re always managing your image to look smart, you’re not taking on the hardest tasks, you’re not thinking about them in the most innovative ways, and you’re not sticking to things that don’t work right away.

How can we make failure more acceptable within organizations?  Are there good strategies for that?

There are. Employees know if a company is going to judge them for a mistake or a setback, or if it is going to support them. In fact, in our Fortune 500 research we asked people whether their company had a fixed mindset or growth mindset. Does it believe that talent is fixed? That some people have it, and some don’t? Or does your company believe talent can be developed? The ones who said that their company had a growth mindset said that they felt supported to take risks. And that if they took a reasonable risk and failed, that the organization would be there for them. But the people who said that their organization had a fixed mindset and just worships talent, those people said they didn’t have that leeway. 

There’s a foundation in Silicon Valley that gives a “Failure of the Year” award. It’s not for the project that squandered the most money. It’s for a project that failed, but where the people on the project milked it for all it was worth—the lessons that they could derive from it that they could feed back into the organization, and that could make the organization more likely to succeed in the future. 

I have spoken at several Silicon Valley organizations where they use the term “value added.” You can get so much value added from a project that did not work if you try to understand why it didn’t work and how to make things work better in the future.  So, organizations can put out the message that they are committed to the development of everyone in the organization, that they believe talent can be grown, and that they are going to support its growth.

What about doing a post-mortem after big projects to talk about what worked and what didn’t work? Do you think that type of activity supports a growth mindset?

Yes, as long as it’s done for learning and not for blaming. But, honestly, most people don’t do a post mortem after a success.  They say, “Yay, it worked!”  But then if they haven’t analyzed it, they don’t know how to replicate it, and they don’t know what the critical ingredients were that made it work. So post-mortems on successes are really important.  A lot of companies do post mortems on failures but it is all about blame.  Who screwed this up? Who lost the client? As opposed to analyzing the process, what went wrong, without blame.  Because, if there is an aura of blame, people aren’t going to come forward and say, “Yeah, that’s me. I’m the fall guy. Pin it on me.” 

So any post mortem has to be done in an atmosphere of honest learning. Not credit versus blame. People who come forward and say maybe what I did here didn’t work, maybe we could learn from it. They should be admired and lauded.

Jocelyn K. Glei is the Director and Editor-in-Chief of 99U. You can follow her intermittent tweets @jkglei. 

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