The Value of Growth Mindsets in the Workplace and What it Means for Culture

The Value of Growth Mindsets in the Workplace and What it Means for Culture

Do you see the glass half-full or a glass half-empty?  (Is the liquid water or vodka?) Do you believe people are inherently lazy (McGregor’s Theory X) or that they are inherently driven to achieve (Theory Y)?  Do you think people can continue to grow their intelligence or that it’s a fixed characteristic?

It’s All a Matter of Perspective

The perspective, or mindset, we bring to any situation in our lives is CRITICALLY important to what we will get out of it.  Psychologist Carol Dweck researched and published on the idea of fixed and growth mindsets in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  She explains “mindset” as a “self-theory” that someone holds about themselves (e.g. I am smart, I am dumb; I am a good artist, I have no artistic ability).  When it comes to “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, here is how Dweck explains them:

  • Fixed: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”

  • Growth: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

A fixed mindset is an either/or proposition, I am or I am not (fill in the blank).  A growth mindset on the other hand is boundless, it strives to develop, it is resilient.  A fixed or growth mindset is especially evident in how someone responds to failure. Do they view it as a conclusion that they can’t do it (fixed) or are they determined to learn from it, to grow and improve upon lessons learned for next time (growth)?

It’s not just individuals that embody such mindsets; organizations can (and do) as well!  This is particularly evident in how the organization, or more accurately its leaders, react to failure.  This reaction, along with the precursor of whether risk-taking was encouraged in the first place, speak to the culture being fostered internally.

Transformative Mindsets = Transformative Cultures

Now this may be presumptive, but I’m going to base the rest of this blog on the idea that most organizations want to develop, to grow, to be innovative in what they do.  In that case, a growth-mindset is critical to transformative work.

A growth-minded organization’s perspective is aligned with the idea that people = potential.  This underlying belief forms the basis of its culture, including from how it views (aka values) its employees to how it manages performance.  It does not focus on perceived “flaws,” it believes intelligence is not fixed, that one can develop talent, strengthen creativity and foster capabilities.  In some ways it may seem counterintuitive but in order to gain the greatest success, you also have to expect and nurture failure. They key difference is that in a growth mindset culture, failure is not seen as a permanent state; it is merely a step in the journey that they persevere through.

In order to be innovative, to be transformative, the culture needs encourage failure in a blatant, loud, in-your-face way.  If the CEO or executive team is assuming everyone “knows” it’s okay to fail (sometimes), that is not enough. Giving people the freedom to explore, to take on new challenges and learn from mistakes can mean the difference from becoming obsolete and becoming Apple.  While it can be scary, if chances aren’t taken, breakthroughs aren’t found.

So, What Does It Look Like?

How does the CEO respond when a new experimental software tool fails?  How does the front-line manager address an employee when their idea that took four weeks doesn’t work out as envisioned?  Do they…

  • Express their frustration that all that time and resources were wasted?  Do they worry it will make them look bad? Do they criticize the work or say it never should have been their responsibility in the first place?


  • Do they take it in stride because they have an inherent trust in their people?  Do they ask what insight did this failure bring to our business that we can capitalize on for next time?

Of course there’s risk in allowing people to take chances… but what’s the saying again… “no risk, no reward.”

The tone that sets the risk-taking, transformation-promoting culture starts at the top.  Senior and executive leaders must demonstrate not merely acceptance, but encouragement and reward of risk-taking and looking at failure as a learning opportunity.  Research into growth mindset organizations has found that employees are more likely to engage in innovative projects, foster greater collaboration and find unexpected leadership capabilities.

When we are too scared to take any risks, when employees feel they will be penalized if an idea fails, they will be less likely to partner with their coworkers, to collaborate and think outside the box, they will stop learning and stop trying.  Your organization may function for a while, but eventually it will be stagnant and that can’t last long in our constantly evolving, competitive marketplace. However… when creativity is fostered and new approaches are encouraged, this promotes innovation and that magic mix that can lead organizations to thrive.


Building the “Bridge to Yet”

Dweck cited through her research the value of “not yet.”  The idea that there is no need to consider something a failure, full stop; rather it’s merely a case of not getting it “yet.”  In Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk she emphasizes this power of “yet.”  Much of her research has been done with students, and it was found that capabilities can change and can grow when given an environment filled with “yet.”

Dweck’s research found that environmental cues are strong drivers of each mindset.  For example, “Good job, you’re very smart” drives a fixed mindset; that I did good because I am “this” (smart, bright, a natural).  On the other hand, “Good job, you worked hard” drives a growth mindset; that when I work hard, any opportunity can open up for me. That tactic implies “this” ability is not inherent per se; it’s based on effort and learning from experiences.  Even more exciting, particularly for our workplaces, she found that mindsets are not static; they can change!

Putting it in Action in Our Workplace

So how can organizations use this?  Right off the bat, consider how your managers give performance feedback.  Do they praise employees for being smart at their work? Or for researching a new assignment, partnering with others, and trying a new method?  We don’t normally think of telling someone they’re “smart” as a negative, but could it be? How praise is framed can be a subtle cue that subconsciously makes a difference.  Rather than “Great work making that spreadsheet. Thank goodness you’re smarter than me at Excel!” what if it was framed along the lines of “Great work creating that spreadsheet.  You’re already revitalizing our control account systems with your innovative idea. I can’t wait to see where you take it next!” Emphasizing the potential seen due to their hard work and ability to be galvanized by any challenge that comes their way can generate stronger motivation and encourage their belief that they can do more, be more.  Imagine how awesome this world would be if we all had a personal cheerleader!

A culture of continual learning is critical in a growth mindset organization.  Think about how you support learning now. There’s not a singular right way to do it, but intentional, focused attention on this is important to send a signal of the organization’s value for learning.  Perhaps you could implement a revitalized LMS, create a tuition assistance program, a new version of PTTO (Paid Training Time Off) or look at internal cross-functional side-by-side training opportunities.  Whatever makes sense for your organization, dive in.

A Few More Considerations to Foster Growth Mindsets

  • Staff appropriately so employees have the ability and time to seek out new challenges and activities to expand their abilities.

  • Foster networks (internal or external) where employees can collaborate across functions when they have a common interest which can lead to a unique solution due to new perspectives.

  • Recognize the possibility that an employee who seems to have a fixed mindset might be that way because of cues they’ve received about their worth and their ability – you can change that based on how you coach and support them.

  • Rewarding success doesn’t mean just rewarding results, it also means recognizing the brave, risk-taking attempts to try something new or in an innovative way that demonstrates their learning or challenging the status quo.

  • Change the world (Well maybe you’ll work up to that one, but hey, someone’s got to do it!)

The Leadership Journey to Self-Awareness Superpowers

The Leadership Journey to Self-Awareness Superpowers

Strategic Planning: Are We There Yet?

Strategic Planning: Are We There Yet?