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Getting to grips with growth mindset theory

It’s great to read about a potentially life changing theory like growth mindset and think to yourself, “Yep! Pretty sure I’ve got that covered. I’m open minded, flexible about things and have a positive outlook, sounds like I have a growth mindset approach to life.” But have you assessed your mindset correctly or is your understanding of the fixed and growth mindset more limited?

Although growth mindset is a buzzword in many organisations, Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor behind the growth mindset idea and author of the book which popularised her research, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success says that sometimes others distort her theory and as a consequence fail to reap their benefits.

How do you know if you have a false growth mindset?

Dweck argues that when most employees in a company embrace a growth mindset, they tend to achieve more, with employees feeling more empowered and committed. However, when misconceptions about growth mindset theory abound this results in a ‘false growth mindset.’ Dweck has found that there are three common misconceptions that contribute to a false growth mindset.

Three common growth mindset misconceptions

1. I already have it and I always have.

This occurs when people confuse a growth mindset with an open minded, flexible approach and positive outlook. When people take this approach they are overlooking the fact that everyone has a mix of fixed and growth mindsets which constantly evolves with experience. There is no such thing as a pure, 100% growth mindset. If we’re unable to understand this then we’ll inevitably be stuck in a false growth mindset, unable to benefit from adopting a genuine growth mindset approach.

2. A growth mindset is just a matter of praising and rewarding effort

Dweck  argues that this is simply not true. Wherever you apply a growth mindset approach, outcomes undoubtedly matter. If effort is unproductive, we need to examine how we can more deeply engage in the process. Dweck recommends paying equal attention to learning and progress, as well as rewarding effort which people often more readily associate with encouraging a growth mindset. Dweck suggests emphasising processes such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies and capitalising on setbacks to move forwards.

3. Just talking the growth mindset talk will ensure great results

Dweck maintains that although it’s great when organisations and individuals talk about a growth mindset, lip service alone won’t make a growth mindset real and attainable. Instead, Dweck encourages organisations to take a deep dive approach and embody a growth mindset by rewarding employees for important and useful lessons learned, even when a project doesn’t reach the desired outcome. Organisations can also model a growth mindset by encouraging and facilitating collaboration across the organisation, rather than having people and teams compete against each other. Efforts should be concrete in word, deed and policies.

Beware of your own fixed-mindset triggers

Dweck argues that even when we work hard to avoid these false growth mindset traps we can still find it less than easy to develop a growth mindset because we all possess our own fixed mindset triggers. A fixed mindset trigger might be evident when we face criticism, are unfavourably compared with others or face a challenge, if we fall into defensiveness or insecurity and growth is inhibited. Inevitably, some work environments can be full of these fixed mindset triggers.

Tips for managing your fixed-mindset triggers

  1. Focus on being aware of when your fixed-mindset ‘persona’ shows up
  2. Identify what it takes to make you feel threatened and defensive.
  3. Develop a growth mindset approach by spotting your triggers, identifying the fixed-mindset persona for what it is and learning to talk back to the persona with a growth mindset voice, persuading it to work towards the new growth mindset effectively.

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