Why leaders should stimulate a growth mindset

Have you ever noticed how different your staff can be? Not just in terms of their motivation and commitment, but also their stamina and the way they deal with their own successes and failures, feedback and their general development. For example, my new colleague, researcher Lien Desmet, is immensely motivated and eager to learn, whereas others sometimes lack drive and only want to stick with what they know.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, says that these differences all come down to a single character trait. People who believe that you can learn your skills and talents to a great extent have what we call a ‘growth mindset’. However, those who assume their abilities are innate will not invest much in further development. These people have a ‘static mindset’. So what does Carol Dweck’s research show? Your mindset has a particularly big impact on how you react to success and failure and how you will behave as a consequence.

If you have a growth mindset, you see great challenges and obstacles as a way to develop further. You will also be more inclined to take calculated risks and try an innovative approach more often. Success isn’t simply handed to you on a plate, and someone with a growth mentality knows it is important to keep on going even after a setback.

However, if you assume your intelligence and talents are fixed, you will tend to put the emphasis more on your positive qualities and avoid all confrontation with problems so that you don’t make a fool of yourself. Even if you are already very talented, you will not show much extra commitment and perseverance with a mindset like that. Moreover, people with a static mindset are often afraid of criticism, which means they perform below their own abilities.

So the crucial question is: is that mindset itself fixed? Fortunately, it isn’t! Carol Dweck’s research has clearly showed that you can develop a growth mindset. Leaders can play a major role in this.

To stimulate a growth mindset as a leader, you need to encourage your employees to think outside the box. Innovative ideas are often worth their weight in gold, so make space for them rather than pushing them aside.

It is also necessary to distance yourself from traditional markers of success. Stop judging a project by the result: evaluate the process as well. Taking risks and thinking up creative solutions regularly leads to failure, more so than the risk-free behaviour of someone with a static mindset. If an employee has experienced a growth curve during the project, however, that is a far more important factor for success than the final result alone. Carol Dweck compares it to evaluating children’s school assignments. As an alternative to saying “Nice work, you’re great!”, she suggests saying “I can see that you have worked hard on that, so I’m proud of you!”. It’s a fine nuance that demonstrates and encourages a major difference in mentality.

This attitude also goes far further than the mere individual. When more and more people within one company adopt a growth mentality, the company can evolve in that direction over time. That process is usually initiated by senior management.

Microsoft is a great example of this. Under CEO Satya Nadella, creativity and innovation are stimulated through contests among staff, and great store is set by projects with a relatively high level of risk. Since employees with a growth mindset are used to taking a risk now and then, and also enjoy testing and improving their knowledge, they can use situations like these to prove themselves. This brings potential leaders to the surface who might not have been noticed within the hierarchy of traditional companies.

Companies with a growth mindset make an effort to discover potential in a far larger number of employees. That is how talent develops optimally, which is something that also benefits the growth-oriented employees. They often find themselves eligible for a management position earlier than they otherwise would. Furthermore, it has been proven that employees at companies with a growth mindset are happier and also identify with the company far more closely.

So, as a leader, be sure not to hide behind the static mindset your company might have or behind your safe position as a leader (“Since I’m a leader, I’ve already proven myself, haven’t I?”). It is important to spread the insights about mindset at every level of the company and to all employees, to create awareness of the potential of a growth mindset. As a leader, you need to take the lead in evolving towards such a mindset, first for yourself and your direct team. Hopefully, a change of mentality will happen right across the company in the long term. After all, success does not go unnoticed, and that is what makes it so infectious!

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