Sowing the seeds of a growth mindset

Mindset is what really makes the difference, and is one of the most crucial elements in creating a successful business.



A leopard can’t change its spots. Brain and talent are inborn gifts that are impossible to alter. This belief, almost as old as time, states that many of the limits to our development are set in stone even before we are born. Carol Dweck, a Psychology professor at Stanford University, refuted this by contesting that an individual’s mindset is what really makes the difference, and found that it is one of the most crucial elements in creating a successful business today.

Years of research on motivation and personality as development drivers led Dweck to identify two opposite mindsets: “fixed” and “growth”. Both have key roles in explaining why some individuals and organizations reach their full potential whilst others don’t. Dweck’s work, summed up in her best-selling 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, started a revolution that, twelve years later, is still the driving force behind one of the strongest trends in Education and Organizational Business.

The idea of “growth-mindset”, now a buzzword in many universities and major companies, teaches us how to break out of the cages in which we imprison ourselves. According to Dweck, a growth-mindset is what makes “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talents are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishments”.

Contrary to this, Dweck describes the existence of a ‘fixed-mindset’. One that emphasizes natural talent over the potential for growth. This, Dweck describes, leads people to become accustomed to their comfort zone and avoid challenges which could grow their outlooks in new ways. A fixed-mindset then, often derails development and can result in a combination of laziness, low self-esteem and fear of failure.

The most important consequence of this is that these mindsets determine not only the ways in which we perceive ourselves, but also those we interact with. Students with a fixed-mindset will probably interpret a disappointing grade as confirmation that a subject is outside of their comprehension. This perception leads to lower expectations, motivation and commitment. Further to this, when someone with social responsibility has a fixed-mindset, the implications can be disastrous: a teacher believing that a student cannot make it will unconsciously transmit their own fatalistic culture onto the student, facilitating failure and fulfilling a sinister self-fulfilling prophesy. It is worthy of note that the same can be said for the relationship between employer to the employees.

Instead, with a growth mindset, almost anything can be achieved through care and dedication. Mistakes are part of this mindset; they are not traumatic experiences to avoid at any cost but an opportunity to be welcomed – failures leads to lessons and any lesson is an opportunity for personal growth. Hard work, not talent, pays off, but Dweck stresses that it should, understandably, only be rewarded if it is facilitates learning and progress.

While some doubts have been raised about Dweck’s research and scientific validity, it has to be said that this approach helps reduce pressure, release tension and can make work-life better – which, in many ways, is just as important as productivity. People who acquire a growth-mindset usually become more aware, more receptive, more confident, more relaxed which in turn positively impacts their private and social lives, relationships, health and career too.

Which is why Dweck’s research is deeply affecting corporate culture and the ways in which complex organizations are managed. Companies have started paying attention to their own cultural mindsets, and have begun to invest in resources that help to instil a growth-mindset – a powerful tool in fostering innovative thinking.

A growth-mindset is crucial for two reasons. First, it helps those at the helm develop a flexible strategy, constantly fine-tune their ideas and spot opportunity where others view threat. The other reason is perhaps less clear, but by no means less meaningful: a company which embraces this kind mindset and instills it into its culture will become more productive – gaining strength as the management extracts a higher value from its employees. In fact, the belief that people can develop hidden talents, thus becoming a more valuable asset for the organization, can change the internal dynamic of a company dramatically.

Managers with a rigid mindset tend to see themselves as outsiders, islands of superiority in a sea of mediocrity, and this shapes the way they treat those below them. Several studies have now revealed how dysfunctional and limited this approach is. These organizations hire based on who the person is, and what level their current skillset is at. In such a ‘culture of talent’ employees are hired based on innate gifts for predefined roles – this restricts workers, boxes them into a limited space and stunts their – and therefore the business’ – growth.

In this scenario, managers rely on a select chosen few whilst others are cast aside. Due to this dynamic, downtrodden employees may simply bow their heads and give up, or even cheat, in order to ensure some form of career progression. But how concrete can an organization be when conformism and sycophancy are encouraged? Furthermore, employers with a fixed-mindset can easily become controlling and abusive after feeling threatened by the achievements of others. Feedback is nonexistent, so people are unable to develop. The result is that disillusionment and distrust prosper, consuming the company from within like a cancer.

Managers with growth-mindsets however, provide much needed support to their employees and get back more in return, thus benefitting the whole organization. These leaders coach the people they work with, appreciate improvement, give feedback and view mistakes as opportunities to learn. They don’t follow a “strategy of exceptionalism” nor think that good resources are exclusive to being sourced from outside, but readily available from within – with the right encouragement, that is.

They help their colleagues see themselves as a part of a project, thus encouraging loyalty and dedication (employees are becoming increasingly fickle) and ensuring positive and creative energies. On side, employees welcome changes, work hard, work better and make a bigger contribution to their company. In particular, Dweck found that those with growth-mindsets are 34% more likely to develop a strong sense of ownership and commitment to their organization than their fixed-mindset peers.

Companies with cultures centered on hard work, merit and dedication are stronger and more innovative. In short, they last. A growth-mindset can help to bear these fruits but it requires constant commitment. It’s not ever-lasting and has to be put into practice every day. Leaders have to ask themselves what kind of mindset is inspiring their decisions and their employees’ behavior.

Every organization has to make sure that it steers itself in the right direction. Microsoft is a good example of a company which imbued growth-mindsets into their own philosophy and one which fuels initiatives which are intrinsic to growth (Hackathons and Talent Talks). However, there are many more ways to foster creativity and innovation and any company can develop solutions that are more suited to their sector.

This is particularly true when it comes to the high-tech goods and services market. Technology is evolving at an unprecedented pace and brands finding themselves in leading positions today can be easily left behind tomorrow. The rise and fall of the Kodak, a company which ignored innovation from within at almost any cost, is a story every manager should bear in mind. Even more, they would better consider that Kodak kept its leadership for decades before tumbling down. Today not even the Big 5 can be sure to last that long.

Therefore it is essential for an organization to sow, nourish and encourage a growth-mindset culture in this period of dramatic industry change. In order to stand up to competition today, organisations must extract ideas and talent from every resource at their disposal. By fostering a growth-mindset culture, solutions to problems can be sourced from within, saving costs, increasing productivity and allowing for better relations between all those inside an organisation. In short, the answers to many of your problems may already be right there in front of you, all that is needed is a new way of looking at things.