Mindset Book Cover

Today we tackle Chapter 2 in Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (buy your copy and read along). In Chapter 2 Dweck provides a deeper dive into fixed and growth mindsets.  The chapter begins with Dweck’s relating how the discovery that there were two meanings to the word ‘ability’ shaped the work.  The first definition for ability is a fixed capability that needs to be proven (continually); the second definition is that an ability is a capability that can be developed through learning. The distinction between two definitions are at the heart of the behavioral differences between the growth and fixed mindsets.  Those that believe that abilities can be developed will seek stretch goals and view failures as a learning opportunities, while those with a fixed mindset will have a very different point of view.

As we dive into examples of the distinctions, keep in mind that mindsets are beliefs, and while beliefs are sticky, they can change based on many different stimuli. I would add that until beliefs are challenged and changed they have an impact on how we behave even if they are at odds with evidence or the norms of the team or organization.

In Chapter 2, Dweck illustrates the difference between a fixed and growth mindset using several attributes common in the team and business environment.   For example, for those with a fixed mindset, the operational definition of their personal success relates to proving they are smart and capable.  Alternately those with growth mindsets define success in terms of stretching and growth.

Another illustration of a behavior demonstrated by someone with a fixed mindset is the avoidance of taking risks that expose their deficiencies.  When someone avoids exposing their deficiencies, they will tend to avoid anything they are not currently good at so they do not have to deal with their deficiencies.  This avoidance of challenges not only affects the individual by potentially constraining their future because they will accept of even get fewer opportunities to advance but just as importantly it can impact the ability of the team to deliver outside-the-box solutions.

Another reason that mindsets matter is because our mindset influences who we have around us. The manager who collects “yes-men” as subordinates is a reflection of a fixed mindset seeking positive feedback that props up their ego.  The opposite point of view is the growth mindset manager that fosters an environment in which critical feedback is viewed as a tool to improve performance.

Other differences highlighted in the chapter include the idea that those with a fixed mindset will tend to repeat concepts and strategies that have been successful in the past with little regard to context.  It is an example of ‘the answer seeking the proper question’ syndrome.  Whereas those with a growth mindset search begin by evaluating the context and then trying new ideas and concepts.  Tests provide another illustration of how the different mindsets approach information/data.  For those with a fixed mindset, tests define who you are whereas those with a growth mindset will approach the results as of a test as a single data point. The value of an individual test is powerful.  Many organizations I am aware of use physiological and capabilities tests to screen applicants. However, rarely do these tests attempt to judge whether they are capturing more than just a current state or whether the applicant is committed to continuous growth.

Entitlement is also a marker of a fixed mindset.  In this circumstance, because they perceive that traits are fixed when they succeed they feel a sense of superiority.  That sense of superiority reinforces their perception that their traits are better than other people’s traits and therefore they have they are entitled to succeed based on their given traits.

Dweck provides further elaboration in Chapter 2 discussing how failure is interpreted between the mindsets.  In a fixed mindset failure defines, while failure represents a challenge and learning experience in a growth mindset.  Listen to people as they rationalize failure, those who have the propensity to blame others generally fall into a fixed mindset.

One of the final areas examined in the chapter is the how the two mindsets perceive effort.  Dweck suggests that those with a fixed mindset perceive the need to work hard at being good as a lack of talent.  A true genius should be great nearly instantaneously.  Someone with a growth mindset sees effort as having a transformative power.  The suggestion that you can become an expert by spending 10,000 hours of study on a topic is a reflection of a growth mindset.

Near the end of the chapter in a Q&A section, Dweck makes a couple of very important points.  The first is that people are often a mixture of mindsets.  Whole people fall on a continuum.  For some areas of their life they may be more fixed and in others more growth oriented.  Secondly, the effort is not the only attribute that leads to success.  While success with a set of constraints will always make a person improve the constraints will also influence success. For example, a person can study programming for 10,000 hours, but if they don’t have a computer to program they will never get any feedback and never successfully execute a program.

Chapter 2 from a coach’s perspective

At the level of transforming an organization, it is important to begin by assessing the overall organizational culture.  While Dweck is describing mindsets at person level, we can observe the same basic traits when observing organizational culture.  For example, I have observed many organizations that view failures as career-limiting events (or worse).  I remember once during my career when a project team was summarily terminated by a CEO when the first attempt to deploy a relational database application had performance issues.  In the end, the test environment and the production environment had been tuned differently.  33 people lost their jobs in 15 minutes.  No one ever tried to innovate on a large scale again and in less than five years the firm failed.  A transformation agent needs to be able to profile the organization and build a path for change that reflects how the organization perceives they grow their capabilities.  Often in organizations that are innovation adverse (rarely will you hear an organization ever say they are innovation adverse, you need to observeask for stories), it is better to pursue incremental change rather than large-scale transformations. Note changing an organization’s overall culture will require addressing the mindset issue, we address organizational culture change later in the year.

At a team level, a coach can find nearly limitless applications of mindset both in a tactical and longer term manner.  In the short term, a coach should understand each team member’s mindset.  The coach can use that knowledge to help leaders and team members better understand the mixture of work a team should accept and who will be better suited for different roles. In the longer term, a coach can use his or her understanding of the mindsets on the team to construct exercises and scenarios to help shift composition of mindsets on a team.  In the end, every team will have members that fall somewhere on the mindset continuum and that probably is par for the course.

Previous Entries of the re-read of Mindset:

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