Empowering a culture of constant learning: Developing a growth mindset

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21 October 2021
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

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In school, children are graded, and classes sometimes separated, based on overall attainment. From our very first day in the classroom, exam questions tend to come down to a binary ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and the amount of effort someone puts in is very rarely taken into consideration. Two pupils with the same final grades are treated the same, even if one breezed through with a natural affinity for the subject, while the other spent every night struggling to understand.

From this starting point, we’re all taught that effort is secondary to end results. This has the effect of making those who find tasks easier fear challenges they can’t face, and the ‘less talented’ ones demotivated. If we were shown the value of ongoing learning, and not to be scared of not knowing and making mistakes, we’d live and work very differently.

We all inherently know that learning should be a process. We reasonably expect a five-year-old to know more than a new-born, and we expect a ten-year-old to know even more than that. So why do we expect people to know everything as soon as they start work? We should give more respect to the process of learning.

And yet, many of us have fallen into the trap of believing that we’re only as smart as we’re ever going to be, and that we can only go as far as our abilities allow. This fixed mindset leaves us feeling that success is out of our hands. How can we possibly do better when we can only work within our own limitations?


The problems with a fixed mindset

This belief that you, and others, are only as good as your existing abilities can lead to some dangerous thinking. Leaders may get frustrated with mistakes and the feeling that their people aren’t good enough. After all, if people working for you are as good as they’re ever going to be, then it’s easy to feel superior and egotistical about your own knowledge and skills.

Working for someone who acts like that is often a stressful and unrewarding experience. There’s a fear of being blamed for things going wrong and not being allowed to say when you need help – because that’s not a quality you want attached to you. Even giving feedback can be seen as a personal attack on someone’s abilities. Working in this environment easily leads to imposter syndrome and a fear of asking for help.

It also leads to stagnation. People will be drawn towards easier tasks, rather than taking the chance on something new and riskier. This is a slippery slope towards an atmosphere where cheating and deception are acceptable, as a positive end result is all that matters.

Of course, these are extreme examples; very few people truly believe that people can’t improve at all. However, there are plenty of leaders and organisations that don’t consider the benefits of creating space where people are allowed to grow and develop. Mistakes are seen as entirely unacceptable and only the highest achievers are worth investing time or effort in.


The difference of a growth mindset

Carol Dwek, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, first came up with the concept of the growth mindset. She defines it as the principle that talents and abilities can be developed, rather than being pre-determined.

Dwek explains that when you work under the belief that success isn’t linked to any kind of natural intelligence or innate talent, suddenly anything is possible. Of course, everyone starts at a different point, and each individual will find some things easier than others, but nothing is impossible given enough hard work and motivation.

Under a growth mindset, failure is just another learning opportunity. In fact, it’s often more accurate to say that you haven’t failed, you just haven’t succeeded yet. Often, the effort you put in is more beneficial than the result. As Dwek says: “Why waste my time looking smart, when I could be getting smarter?” 

Consequently, this change of mindset helps encourage teamwork. When there’s less drive to look like the best and most able, it removes the feeling of competition and allows you to admit when you need help. By applying the collective knowledge of a team, rather than trying to prove you can succeed on your own, you’re making work a lot easier in the long run. This spirit of collaboration also builds much more agile teams and innovative teams.


How do you create a growth mindset in your organisation?

1. Remove the fear of failure

As we’ve been saying, a fear of failure leads people to take on only the easiest and simplest tasks in order to look good. By allowing your people to jump into new things, fully aware that it could go wrong or lead to nothing, you allow them to build experience and knowledge. The risk may pay off and it becomes a surprise success, maybe in ways you weren’t expecting. Or, even if it doesn’t work out, by understanding what went wrong, you can make the next attempt even better. The days when we learn the most are those days where we make mistakes and discover how to do things differently next time. These are the best days!


2. Empower new ideas

Growth and learning come from exposure to things you didn’t know before. Often you don’t even know the things you don’t know, so it’s important to engage with new and unexpected ideas. As a leader, you should empower your people to speak up with their unique viewpoints. Widening your networks to understand and hear from a diverse range of people is hugely beneficial.  


3. Break routines
Doing new things widens your view of the world. Encourage your people to try new things and new approaches. The tried-and-tested methods work, but you could be missing out on something much better by being too hesitant.


4. Let people set their own goals
A growth mindset means allowing your people to look inwards and be honest and mindful about their own abilities and areas in need of improvement. As a leader, it’s important to set the direction of the business and what needs doing, but within that framework you should be empowering individual development. Everyone has unique needs and their own way of learning, so let each person commit to their own goals.


5. Consider the feedback you give

When giving feedback to others, remember the difference between an end result and the effort put in. Don’t make people feel bad for their failures, or big headed about easy wins. You can praise their work while giving constructive feedback about how to improve it. Making your feedback genuine and constructive will make others seek it out, rather than hide from it.


6. Practice what you preach

It’s very easy to tell others to adopt a new mindset, but for the actual environment around an organisation to change, those in charge need to take the lead. Don’t get upset when things go wrong, instead take the opportunity to help people learn, ask for feedback, speak to team members about development goals (theirs and your own) and start putting yourself in situations where you can prove and overcome your own fallibility. A growth mindset doesn’t simply occur in an organisation, you have to make it happen.


With a growth mindset, you can learn to let go of your ego, swapping defensiveness for a willingness to learn. Simply practicing saying “I don’t know” or “I got this wrong” will help change your thought processes and reactions. When you can inspire your whole team or organisation to adopt this mindset, you can reach new heights. Collaboration, innovation and development all come out of a growth mindset, as well as a happier and more agile team.


To discover more of our practical methods for improving your Leadership and Management skills, have a look at our Learning Solutions.


1 Talks at Google (2015) The Growth Mindset | Carol Dwek | Talks at Google