Fixing a Fixed Mindset

Do your employees really know everything? Or do they just think they do? If it’s the latter, they may be stuck in a fixed mindset, and if so, that’s no good for you.

Dr Carol Dweck of Stanford University is a leading researcher studying the idea of “mindset.” She suggests that

Mindsets are beliefs — beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?

People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things — not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan — without years of passionate practice and learning.

Now I know some of my friends and colleagues would think this is another “Duh!” moment, but I wonder if they had really thought about this before it was pointed out. More specifically, I wonder if they have thought about how these mindsets develop, and what they can do with them. My doctoral dissertation addressed these learning vs nonlearning mindsets among organizations, and I find it interesting to see the discussion come down to the level of the individual, with an emphasis on personal development.

You want your employees to have a growth mindset. They need to be eager to learn, not just open to knowing ideas but actively seeking to develop their talents. Being static, in a fixed mindset, is the polar opposite of being creative and innovative, and one of your functions as a leader is to encourage them to develop and maintain a growth mindset.

“But wait,” you might say, “my most talented employees already have a growth mindset…that’s why they are so talented!” Hmmm, maybe. I am going to suggest, though, that there is the potential for trouble here.

One thing I have noticed is that, when people develop a certain expertise, they run the risk of thinking they know all there is to know, and their brain does not always stay open to the possibility of learning more. If you have extremely talented people (and why would you want to have any other kind?), they may be so convinced of their own superior talent that they feel no one else has anything to teach them. Maybe they went to a top school, maybe they have won awards, maybe they have received praise from you or from clients…all of these come about because they have a growth mindset to begin with, but their success can lead them to abandon that mindset in favor of holding onto the status quo, the things that got them to where they are. Just because someone starts out with a growth mindset does not mean they will keep it. They can fall into a fixed mindset when their experiences suggest that what they have now is all they are going to get.

You should watch for signs of a fixed mindset among your employees. Even better, you should actively take steps to avoid it. Do not just make development opportunities available; instead, make professional development part of their job, and ensure the time is available for them to do it. It does not have to be formal and expensive; encourage brown-bag lunches where someone presents something from their experience, such as a project they are working on, another job they had, or travel experiences. I used to teach in an academic department that had an active reading group, where we encouraged reading outside of our particular field of study; it helped us realize there are plenty of other ways to look at the subjects we were teaching, which reminded us we did not know all there was to know, and encouraged us to keep learning. Look for learning opportunities outside of formal training; consider volunteer projects, or day trips to a place of interest to your field. Whatever you do, the idea is to not only help people see there is more to learn, but also see that they CAN learn and it WILL help.

I realize this discussion may be a little different from what Dr Dweck is discussing, but I think it is important. You cannot afford to have employees with a fixed mindset. Avoid the problem best by preventing it rather than dealing with it afterwards. Employees who do not keep learning and developing will get left behind, and they can drag your organization down with them.

One Response so far.

  1. […] talked the other day about a growth mindset among your employees. Though we like to think employees inherently have a growth, rather than fixed, mindset, that is […]

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