It is people and their ability to evolve and adapt, rather than strategy, that most determines a business’s success and sustainability, particularly in times of rapid change and volatility. The question for business leaders is how best to foster adaptability in their staff―the capability to deal with change, adversity and unpredictability.
‘Mindset theory’, a concept first proposed by Stanford professor Carol Dweck (2006), offers some answers. Dweck's theory of ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets acknowledges that individuals differ in their beliefs about whether human attributes, such as intelligence, talents, and abilities, are stable or malleable, and what they can do to change them over time. A person with a growth mindset believes their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence.
This is important in a business context because individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks, and are more likely to believe they can improve and develop through learning. Whereas at the ‘fixed’ end of the spectrum individuals hold the implicit belief that attributes, talents, and abilities are defined at birth and are static, stable, and not amenable to change.
Is a Growth Mindset Something we can Develop?
My recent research, based on the study of a group of recent MBA graduates, considered whether a growth mindset can be cultivated, retained, and embedded. I found that development of a growth mindset is possible with a well-structured experiential learning program, even in students who naturally had a predisposition towards a fixed mindset. Furthermore, building on previous research, I found that after a two-year delay most participants recognised that their learning on the MBA program, which had encouraged a positive growth disposition, had been retained in some form and transferred into their places of work.
Short of recommending an MBA or a full executive development program, I believe there are useful lessons individuals, business leaders and HR professionals can learn from this.
Evidence from neuroscience shows we can train and grow our brains in different areas through practise and repetition. Nurture rather than nature can predominate if individuals take responsibility for their own development. A growth mindset can be hugely beneficial in facilitating this process because it inspires us to face challenging situations and stretch out of our comfort zones. It can also provide the strength required to be prepared to fail, bounce back and learn.
Attaining a Growth Mindset
So how do we attain a growth mindset? It starts with the individual, but then resonates on the team level in terms of providing a supportive network of people who can enable those challenging learning situations to happen.
Being able to provide feedback to colleagues and team members and also being a recipient willing to learn from the feedback, was a key piece of my research. Ultimately this can drive a learning culture across an organization, with all employees feeling reassured that, as they step out of their existing comfort zones and challenge themselves, they will be supported and safe.
The opposite to a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. Often this can arise from being successful in your role. You might have a really strongly defined job description, knowing what your key competencies and skills and abilities are and subsequently you are more reluctant to learn, engage, and develop into other areas. Context is important here in that the fixed mindset is, perhaps, more likely to occur in more traditional organizational environments where there is less freedom and more restrictions on day-to-day job responsibilities. How easy it is to develop a growth mindset across an organization, long-term, will vary according to context and circumstance.
Considering context, one might also think an individual's innate personality―optimist/pessimist, etc.―would affect how willing they are to embrace a growth mindset. This is not something I've covered in my research, but essentially mindset understanding is a ‘belief’ and not a stable characteristic like personality. In essence it sits relatively independent to those stable traits, which would then suggest that anybody who is intentionally trying to do so can move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
Actions for Fostering Growth Mindsets
What then are some concrete actions that business leaders or HR professional can take to foster growth mindsets at work?
I see this as being on three levels―individual, team, and organizational:
- Individual level
The first thing I would suggest is recognise and reward potential rather than skills. Rather than either recruiting or rewarding based on established skills, think about what else the individual can offer and how willing they are to engage in development. So, recognising potential and offering support to develop that potential is very much an HR priority on an individual level.
- Team level
Secondly, I would emphasise the importance of building teams with high levels of trust. Higher levels of trust enable the feedback that is so crucial to an individual’s development, to be effective. A trusting team is more willing to engage and give feedback. Also, when recipients of feedback are trusting they will listen to it and see it as a development opportunity rather than a challenge or a criticism.
- Organizational level
Thirdly, taking people outside of their comfort zones to stretch their skills development is key. Typically, people are employed because their existing skills match a specific job description. To perform their current role well this is important, but at a time when businesses need people to be adaptive to change, providing opportunities to experience new challenges and develop new competencies is vital. Job shadowing or rotation of work roles, are approaches that can provide structure to stretch employees into new areas and support the natural development of new competencies.
Purpose, Passion, and Practise
Observing individuals who had developed a strong growth mindset, I identified three elements that support their approach: purpose, passion and practise.
Purpose. This is about self-awareness. Understanding yourself as you are at the moment and thinking about your pathway to development. What skills or competencies you want to focus on as a new opportunity?
Passion. An individual’s motivation to challenge themselves and also their long-term aspirations. Where do you want to be? Who do you want to become?
Practise. This is what a growth mindset looks like on a behavioural level in the workplace. Here I identified five elements that underpin agility and adaptiveness: active listening; clear communication; having a curious mind; willingness to learn; being able to take feedback and give feedback.
All in all, I observed that individuals with a growth mindset were typically unfazed by new challenges. Rather, they were able to see challenges as opportunities to learn something new, and grow from this development.
Read the Hult Ashridge Executive Development research paper: ‘Mindset Matters’