Cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ at work

Adopting behaviours that lead us to improve ourselves requires letting go of some of the preconceptions of what good performance at work should look like.

How do you feel when someone gives you feedback at work? Are you open, receptive and reflective or do you feel threatened and defensive?

What about when you’re faced with a situation that is challenging? Do you leap into to it without fear and think about how you can learn and grow or do you avoid it because it’s too much effort or might mean you’ll fail?

Your answers to these questions give an indication about the extent to which you fall into a ‘fixed’ or ‘growth’ mindset, terms which have been used for some time, following Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and her 2013 TED talk on the subject.

It seems, though, the growth mindset is flourishing in our education system more than our workplaces. I was talking to someone recently who was working with her son on his homework and helping him to get the answer right. Her little boy said to her: “It’s not always about getting it right mummy, even if it’s wrong you can learn and get better. It’s called growth mindset.”

We laughed about her seven-year-old taking her to task but it really struck me that teachers appear to be cultivating a growth mindset in students far more than managers are with their team members.

Many people I work with don’t feel that they have a licence to learn or space to fail. They focus on getting the right answer and feel they have to be an expert. They can’t admit they need help and shut down their engagement when they receive challenging feedback. This is both a result of their individual approach and the culture of the organisations they work in.

Marketing and the growth mindset should go hand in hand. We need to create a fertile environment for ideas and creativity to thrive, where feedback is about improving our work and ourselves. Approaching our capabilities as a continual work in progress means that we shift value away from being a ‘know it all’ and onto being a ‘learn it all’.

Cultivating a growth mindset at work takes effort at all levels of an organisation and there are three actions which can contribute significantly to achieving this.

Show you’re vulnerable

The first requires leaders to be a role model that exhibits vulnerability. Leaders who pride themselves on their expertise and present themselves as failure-free create ripples of perfectionism in their organisation, pushing people towards fixed-mindset mode.

There is an increasing body of research which shows open, authentic and values-driven leaders are more inspiring and create higher levels of motivation and performance in their employee base. When a leader addresses this, it should look and sound like they are being honest about challenges, how they continue to learn and develop when they have failed as well as when they have succeeded.

One of the most powerful examples I have seen was in a company I worked in, where I was attending an all-day meeting for the 200-strong UK management community. It was a day of learning and connection.

Managers need to look at the balance of positive to negative feedback. Evidence suggests a 5:1 ratio of positive to critical feedback creates high-performing teams.

At the start of the day, one of the UK board read out an email from the CEO, who had intended to attend the event. In the email, the CEO shared that they needed to take a day back after significant amounts of travel had left them in need of refuelling and re-energising, to support the business in achieving ambitious year-end targets.

The CEO expressed thanks for everyone’s efforts and encouraged them to listen to their bodies and their minds and take a break if they needed to sustain their energy and impact. It felt a very human and honest communication and created a climate of respect and support for the leader.

Don’t fear feedback

The second action to cultivate a growth mindset is for managers to embed feedback into the day-to-day working of their team. People often fear feedback because it comes only during an annual review and is loaded with associations of financial performance and organisation progression.

Neuroscience shows our brains protect us by making us think and behave like we’re in the right, even when we’re not. This affects how people react in the moment and the effectiveness of the action they take afterwards.

Managers need to normalise feedback by delivering it more regularly and in smaller bursts. Using a feedback phase like ‘what worked well’ and ‘it would be even better if’ is a simple way to do this.

Managers also need to look at the balance of positive to negative feedback. Evidence suggests a 5:1 ratio of positive to critical feedback creates high-performing teams. Managers should kick-start creating a feedback culture in their team by asking for regular feedback on their own style and approach from their team, expressing gratitude for the insights and informing people about what action they are taking as a result.

Avoid personal comparison

Finally, individuals should create their own definition of success. Comparison runs contrary to a growth mindset, leading to you feeling better or worse about yourself based on your perception of other people’s success. This makes your happiness dependant on other people. It can also create a negatively competitive climate at work.

Understanding what makes you happy by reflecting on your values and recognising all of your successes can help to combat the damaging impacts of comparison. Often, we look at our success as the one big thing we delivered in the year rather than the successes we have every day, which can range from turning up to your meetings on time to asking a great question.

You can retrain your mind to clue into your small successes by writing down one success a day for a month in a notebook or on your phone.

We are neither all fixed nor all growth but taking conscious efforts to cultivate a growth mindset at all levels of an organisation develops people and businesses that are fit for the future.