More About Mindset

Having recently explored the concepts around mindset, I've become a little fascinated and have taken the time to dig much deeper. I've realised that mindset isn't just about how we might respond to the need to change, it's about our world view of everything that we encounter in our lives - work, family, relationships, self ... the lot. Mindset is a belief that we adopt for ourselves. It becomes the lens through which we make sense of everything about ourselves and those around us.

Many researchers have used the concept of mindset in their specialist interest areas, so we hear about leadership mindset, managerial mindset, positive mindset, collaborative mindset, defensive mindset, amongst many other mindset labels. The common ground amongst these is that each mindset brings with it a specific set of behaviours that are the norm for holders of that mindset; so, for example, a collaborative mindset leads to behaviours of participative action with others at a personal or organisation level.

Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford is currently the ‘mindset guru’ and from her extensive research has identified two distinct mindsets that underlie and explain the behaviours associated with all of the other mindsets detailed by prior researchers; fixed mindset and growth mindset. These two mindsets can be regarded as both the basis for the other mindsets and a significant driver of our behaviours.

Fixed mindset

If you have a fixed mindset you believe that your intelligence is a fixed gift and that success for you is about being smart. You will work hard to assure your ‘smartness’ and will carve out an expertise area in which you can dominate. You constantly seek to validate that you are smart. Failure is not an option for you because you take being seen to be less smart personally.

You are uncomfortable about change because it may expose you to the risk of being less smart. You will resist change to reduce that risk.

You will find leadership difficult because working in relationships with others and delegating tasks reduces your control over outcomes and may put your ‘smartness’ at risk. You prefer to be authoritarian, to hold on to your knowledge rather than share it. You do not want to develop others as they may grow to rival you.

Fixed mindsets can lead to grief in a dynamic business environment – hanging on to old ways and ideas, because they are yours, and not being open to the thoughts of others because they threaten your mastery. Carol Dweck identifies some spectacular business failures as resulting from the fixed mindset of their leaders – Dunlap at Sunbeam and Iacocca at Chrysler, among others. And in our own lives we can easily identify those around us that have fixed mindsets.

Growth mindset

If you have a growth mindset you believe that your intelligence can be enhanced by learning.  You are motivated by lifelong learning opportunities.  Success for you is all about the learning journey, not the destination. You see everything around you as an opportunity to learn and develop, including failure.

You initiate and embrace change for the growth and development opportunities it offers you.

You find the challenges of leadership highly stimulating and support growth and development in others because it is an opportunity for you also.

Growth mindsets support business success – enabling good communication of new ideas and responsive change to what is happening in the business environment.  Again, Carol Dweck identifies some spectacular business successes that arose from the growth mindset of their leaders – Welch at GE and Gerstner at IBM.

Changing mindset

The good news about mindset is that you can change from fixed to growth; Carol Dweck herself has been undergoing that change for a number of years. The bad news is that it is very hard to do – remember we are dealing with our personal belief systems and, as we know, from the strife in the world around us, our beliefs are strongly held onto and are not easily challenged or changed by rational processes.

Mindset, learning and development (L&D) and organisational development (OD)

L&D and OD have a lot in common; they are about people interacting with each other and with work processes; they are about effort now for a different future, and they have both emotional and rational aspects. Mindset has a big role to play in how effective L&D and OD initiatives turn out.

Fixed mindsets can be a problem for both L&D and OD. They can either fail to engage or ‘grandstand’ during training events; the former to protect themselves from risk, the latter to assert their smartness. Fixed mindsets are unlikely to implement any practice changes back at work other than in their own specialist knowledge area; they are not likely, for example, to experiment with new leadership behaviours and take the personal risks that might involve.

Fixed mindsets don’t support the changes that OD works to bring about. Fixed mindsets will often be the anchor that slows the process down. They will expend a lot of energy and disrupt a lot of people and process to fight against change.

Growth mindsets, on the other hand, relish L&D and OD for their opportunities for engagement in exciting new training journeys and the growth they bring. They can assert leadership during learning and change and can influence others to follow. They will exercise initiative to operationalise learning and change. They are assets to the process.

Observations about mindset

If you have a growth mindset – well done; you are already well dressed for the challenges of the current organisational environment, and for leadership.

If you have a fixed mindset – bad luck; you may be challenged by the dynamic demands of business and others and may have some issues as a leader. The good news, though, is that if you apply discipline and effort, you can change your mindset – just like Carol Dweck is very successively doing. 

Reference: Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: the new psychology of success, 2006, Random House, New York.