A person’s mindset can determine whether a learning intervention is successful, and a growth mindset is superior to a fixed one.
By: Karl McDonnell
Staying ahead of new ideas and trends within an industry and adopting new competencies and skills represent the basics of how employee development helps companies remain competitive in a rapidly changing business environment. However, being open to new ideas and approaches does not come easily to many and, without the right mindset, learning will not occur. But companies can change that.
According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s research, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” the ability to learn a new concept or skill often comes down to mindset. Dweck, along with a growing number of experts, believes there are two kinds of mindsets: fixed and growth. They serve as a contextual lens that shapes perceptions, emotions, creativity, thinking, planning and ultimately actions related to learning. One holds us back; the other pushes us forward.
The Mind of a Champion It’s not unusual for individuals to have a growth mindset in some situations and a fixed mindset in others. Individuals who have a fixed mindset are all about proving their abilities. They thrive when they grasp things easily, but failure — such as missing the mark on a work assignment or losing a promotion — is treated as an extreme setback. In their mind, their abilities are carved in stone, and not performing at an optimal level means they lack intelligence and talent. This is a dangerous mindset within a corporate setting because if things get too challenging, these individuals often walk away.
For example, a retail inventory stocker suddenly needs to learn the customer service skills the company values in all employees, regardless of role. If this employee has a fixed mindset, he or she will be less open to gaining the new competencies and more likely to perceive inability to grasp the new content as a failure.
In contrast, people with a growth mindset thrive by treating their minds like muscles, stretching and developing them to learn new things. For them, failure is not being able to move forward and not seizing opportunities to stretch for the things they value. A growth mindset is based on the belief that people can cultivate their ability to learn and adapt. It’s not about getting things right the first time, it’s about learning something over time.
For example, if an employee is moved to a new team that better aligns with his or her skills, rather than become overwhelmed by the need to become familiar with new teammates and processes, the growth-mindset employee understands that learning and familiarity take time and will identify initial steps for a smooth transition. This is in contrast to the fixed-mindset employee, who will strongly resist the change.
Former NFL coach Joe Gibbs has built a successful career by motivating athletes and teams to adopt the right frame of mind for success. Following a successful football coaching career, which included three Super Bowl championships as head coach of the Washington Redskins and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gibbs took these skills into NASCAR, where Joe Gibbs Racing has won three Sprint Cup Series Championships.
He said any successful organization follows a growth mindset. “I always said you win with people. You need people that are willing to sacrifice for the overall good of the company, and oftentimes that means you need individuals willing to learn from mistakes and adapt to the challenges they face.”
Understanding how to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset is a critical first step to help companies break down developmental barriers and empower employees to become successful learners. Dweck said learning leaders can help employees do this, but first individuals must learn to listen to their inner voice, which could indicate when going after a challenge is not a good idea. Second, individuals should understand they have a choice to evaluate challenges through a fixed mindset or a growth one. By becoming aware of the two different lenses during challenging times, individuals can consciously choose the growth mindset every time.
Lessons From Adult Education According to Malcolm Knowles, an adult learning theory expert, there are six principles for adult learning. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed, they bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences, and they are goal- and relevancy-oriented. They are also practical and like to be respected. This fits the mindset theory because adults can use their motivation to succeed and their desire to reach a goal as fuel to learn how to change their mindset.
Numerous studies of potentially at-risk college students, including adults returning to higher education after years away, reveal that students can make the shift from a fixed to a growth mindset when armed with the right psychological messages to address their two most common doubts: belonging to their college community and their ability to do well on class assignments.
Middle school students in New York City offer a valuable point of reference. According to a 2011 New York Times article by Paul Tough, David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, was troubled by a seemingly contradictory finding. At one of his middle schools in the Bronx, the graduating classes ranked near the top of all schools across the city despite drawing from primarily low-income neighborhoods. Graduates went on to gain admittance to well-regarded high schools and universities, but after 10 years just 33 percent of these students had earned a degree at a four-year college.
Working with academic researchers, Levin identified a number of values — zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity — that, if instilled early, could promote self-control and determination among students and make a tangible impact on achievement. These values, particularly optimism and curiosity, are emblematic of a growth mindset and are critical to overcome short-term setbacks.
The growth mindset needs to be reinforced regularly during learning. Student interventions, which can be conducted when individuals encounter achievement obstacles, can have a profound impact. At a fundamental level, these interventions allow students to combat a sense of helplessness that can undermine their performance. According to David Yeager, author of “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic,” student interventions are not replacing one deeply held belief with another. They shift the meaning of setbacks so learners maintain their motivation and do not interpret them as a sign they do not belong or cannot succeed in college.
This targeted support has demonstrated results. Tough detailed a community college’s half-hour online intervention aimed to shift mindsets in a New York Times piece in May. Done at almost no cost, the math dropout rate was cut by more than half. A similar program, introduced at the University of Texas in 2012, was so successful it is now part of student pre-orientation.
A number of tested adult education approaches can be applied to the corporate learning environment (Figure 1).
“One of the most important things that we can do to help influence a growth mindset for our associates is to engage them with this goal throughout their careers,” said Michelle Thompson, Home Depot University’s director of learning. “From orientation and onboarding to developing fundamental and advanced skills, all associate activities must drive home the message that learning and adapting are celebrated skills.”
New Definition of Success Adapting a growth mindset should be the new mantra for success. People are the driving force behind every company, and investing time and resources to help make them better learners should be at the top of every agenda. Doing so ensures the hardworking, talented and inspired individuals who fuel our companies will be better prepared to tap into their creativity and curiosity.
While shifting mindsets can be challenging — especially as they are often ingrained by nature, youth and life experience — there is a variety of evidence to show it is possible. The most effective learning programs will first address this shift and ensure that all employees are in the right frame of mind before starting to train on a particular curriculum.
Companies can promote a growth mindset by reinforcing that employees have control over their success and attainment, and by providing coaching and support during adversity or setbacks. With these components in place, employees can break away from the fixed mindset they may have inherited and adopt a growth mindset that gives them the freedom to move forward. The result will be more fulfilled employees, better performance and a more competitive organization.