The growth mindset

Sep 30, 2020

Dr Annette Clancy explains why a growth mindset is critical to success when faced with relentless, and seemingly endless, uncertainty.

COVID-19 forced companies to adapt and change with unprecedented speed. Change is always on the agenda, but the pandemic accelerated it. Right now, organisations are planning to bring people safely back to the workplace. Planning is essential to reassure workers and clients that their safety is a priority but, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, plans are only partly useful in a context where the future is complex and unpredictable. Organisations will need to cultivate adaptability to continue to respond to this ever-changing environment.

Adaptability

Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University who researches human motivation. After studying the behaviour of thousands of children and their attitude to failure, she coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ to describe people’s beliefs about learning. A fixed mindset assumes that intelligence or character is limited in the sense that it cannot change. As a result, people see effort as fruitless and obstacles as indicators that they should stop working. A growth mindset thrives on challenges and learns from criticism. It sees obstacles as opportunities to learn and persists when faced with a challenge.

Dweck’s mindset theory has been enormously influential in how we think about motivation and adaptability, not only in relation to children but also because of its applicability to people and organisations more generally. Dweck’s book, Mindset, has been a best-seller since its publication in 2006. And it has particular relevance today, as a growth mindset approach to planning amid a pandemic is likely to yield more benefits than a fixed mindset approach.

The power of ‘yet’

Those with a growth mindset do not view obstacles or challenges as failures. Rather, they view them as challenges to be overcome. Dweck shared the following example in her 2014 TED talk.

“I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade ‘Not Yet’. And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”

The concept of ‘yet’ removes the fear of failure. It suggests that it is possible to achieve outcomes with adaptability or change, thereby increasing the likelihood of increased cooperation and the free flow of ideas. From a fixed mindset perspective, changing direction or re-strategising is a significant problem that may throw the company off direction. From a growth mindset perspective, this may be a challenge, but also an opportunity to adapt creatively.

Dweck’s research suggests that the latter framing allows for psychological adaptability, which will yield practical results.

The blame game

Dweck tells us that blame is part of a fixed mindset, as she explains in this quote from her book: “When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged.”

This type of atmosphere inhibits creativity because employees will fear being blamed for risk-taking, which is central to adaptability. Leaders who exhibit a growth mindset have a vested interest in developing people and encouraging creativity. They rarely use the company as a vehicle for narcissistic posturing. Their interest is in growing the company and supporting the creative adaptability that will ensure the success of the organisation and its people.

COVID-19 is pushing everyone to adapt to new ways of working. Dweck’s research on mindsets offers one perspective on enhancing creativity at a time of uncertainty and change.

Dr Annette Clancy is Assistant Professor of Management at the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD.