Specialist trainer and corporate coach, Michelle Spirit, takes a look at mindset theory and outlines how training and development can help build growth mindsets with resulting benefits for both individuals and the organisation.
I came across Mindset Theory in the context of my work as a Wellbeing and Resilience specialist where the aim is often to help employees and their employing organisation recognise that emotional health depends to a large extent on our perception and beliefs about ourselves and the world in which we live. Much of this work has focussed on developing approaches that help employees perceive mistakes and failure as a chance to learn and grow, and to recognise that we all have control over the outcome of many events in life which often evolve in line with our own actions, the decisions we make and the amount of will and effort we apply.
Mindset theory seemed to be telling a similar story, finding a clear correlation between the beliefs individuals have of themselves and their abilities, how they cope with failure and how they perform in the workplace. This realisation felt like a small eureka moment as I then began to realise how many other learning and development activities were, at their core, giving us a very similar message; all at their root encouraging individuals to believe, at a deep level, that they are in the driving seat when it comes to achieving success in life.
Surely, I thought, if we could encourage the growth mindset in employees this would not only help them meet their performance potential, it would also help promote their wellbeing, resilience and levels of engagement and motivation.
Essentially, mindsets are the beliefs we have of ourselves and our abilities. They shape how we approach challenge. Based on over 35 years of work by Stanford University Psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck and others, the research shows that those with a growth mindset are more motivated and perform at a higher level. It’s important to know that mindsets are malleable, and are something we can change.
There are two mindsets:
- Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are genetically predetermined. That you are either born with or without a set of abilities and, if you are not born with them, they can’t be developed. Those with a fixed mindset care a lot about how they will be judged. Smart or not smart. They will reject opportunities to learn or do anything new or challenging if they might make mistakes, particularly if these mistakes are visible to others. A manager or supervisor praising an employee’s innate talent encourages them to develop a fixed mindset.
- Those with a growth mindset however, recognise that abilities can be cultivated with effort and determination, that talent is not preordained and that both success and failure is down to persistence and learning from mistakes and challenges. Rewarding effort and seeking different ways of approaching tasks if success is not being achieved encourages a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset also work harder to puzzle out solutions when they don’t meet success … Jason Moser and his colleagues discovered that when encountering a mistake, a growth mindset brain experiences more electrical activity as it works hard to spot, understand and correct mistakes whereas the fixed mindset brain tunes out correcting feedback and actually closes down neural activity.
Here are attitudes commonly associated with these two mindsets:
Training and development that helps build growth mindsets in the workplace
Training and development that helps employees understand and enthusiastically apply this knowledge to themselves, and others includes:
- A basic understanding of the brain, how we learn and that the more we use it the stronger it becomes.
- That we are not born as clever, stupid or average as some might think.
- That we can choose to grow a growth mindset. They are beliefs and we have the power to change these.
- That there is a value in seeking challenge and not always getting things right
Staff development should also address a worrying trend picked up by Dweck who carried out a lot of her research in the education sector. She noticed that when schools are applying this theory to their practice, teachers know that to admit to having a fixed mindset is “bad” and for this reason deny they think in this way. The reality is that we all have a little fixed and growth mindset in us. Professional growth programmes can help all feel comfortable recognising this, and learn how to tune into those triggers that make us fall into the fixed mindset way of thinking so they can be worked on.
Management behaviours that encourage growth mindsets include:
- Encouraging staff to challenge themselves and to recognise that this provides a chance to extend skills and knowledge beyond existing levels.
- Active encouragement of mistakes, whilst at the same time fostering a safe and secure environment in which this is accepted with no criticism or humiliation.
- Framing mistakes as evidence of learning and of getting better at something (FAIL = First Attempt in Learning).
- Helping staff reflect when they are spending too long cruising, and how to remember to nudge themselves to move outside of their comfort zone when they are finding a task too easy.
As Kelly McGonigal phrases it, seeing those times when we are feeling pressured and are struggling as the “the biology of courage”, and to view pressure as our friend rather than our foe. Remember those with a fixed mindset could well avoid putting themselves in the stretch zone for fear of failure. Learning that this is how we achieve more, and accepting that failure is part of life can be an important revelation.
A final note
The foundation of building growth mindsets is the ability to excite and inspire employees so they want to learn. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, notes that we may have some innate predisposition to be “good” at something but, he argues, that what really sets people apart is the application of effort to capitalise on this, and how that the level of effort is driven by desire. Building growth mindsets helps us understand how we can capitalise on those areas of work staff have a strong desire to engage in, encouraging challenge and a framing of mistakes that makes them not fear, but welcome these as important opportunities to learn and grow.
You can find details of our one-day Developing a Growth Mindset course here.
 Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
 Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. (2011). Mind Your Errors. Psychological Science, 22(12), 1484-1489.
 Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself. Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.
 Gladwell. M. (2008). Outliers : the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
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