Want to lead? Exhibit, expect, and enable a growth mindset.

Want to lead? Exhibit, expect, and enable a growth mindset. November 16, 2015

Learning new skills is essential to the human condition.
Image courtesy of Allison Christians Photography, Denver, Colorado, © 2015

What if you—no matter what you do for work—could improve your work performance just by changing how you think?

What if you could become an influential team leader just by changing how you think about others?

Sound like 1970s snake oil psychology? “The power of positive thinking,” pop psychologist Norman Vincent Peale come again?

Nope, these are serious, scientific findings, based in multiple studies in psychology, education, and business. We get better results when we treat people—including ourselves—as dynamic systems who can grow and learn, not as human widgets to be discarded at the first sign of a defect. If we believe our intelligence and our skills are fixed, they are worse than neutral, they become a heavy weight to drag. If we believe they can grow and that effort is rewarded, not only can we grow our own abilities, we can inspired others to do so, too.

This system of ideas is nicely summarized in “The potential role of mindsets in unleashing employee engagement” from last January’s issue of Human Resource Management Review (Keating and Heslin 2005). Kudos to my colleague Dr. Laura Luchies for finding the article and leading our team to discuss and act on it.

Here’s a helpful summary excerpt. I have bolded key phrases and removed the numerous study citations for easier reading:

When people hold a fixed mindset, the assumption that abilities cannot be altered very much leads them to avoid challenges that might expose an inherent ability deficiency. A fixed mindset inclines people to view effort as fruitless and to ignore negative and potentially helpful feedback. The assumption that abilities are immutable also prompts those with a fixed mindset to rapidly judge people for their perceived transgressions that can strain their relationships with others.

When people have a growth mindset, however, they tend to embrace challenges and construe effort as crucial for mastering tasks. The belief that abilities are malleable prompts people to seek and pay attention to corrective feedback and to perceive setbacks as reflecting a need for more effort and better strategies, rather than indicative of limited ability. Instead of condemning others for their perceived wrongdoings, a growth mindset is associated with helping others to develop and change. (page 331)

Looking for an effective, proven leadership strategy? Believe, sincerely, that your people can get smarter and learn new things. Congratulate effort and perseverance (a “culture of growth”) instead of praising people for intrinsic characteristics (a “culture of genius”—it sounds flattering, but it’s fatally flawed). Your team will perform better when people find meaning in their work. Even when the work is drudgery, a growth mindset includes the whole team in seeking ways to make the work more enjoyable and to replace shared drudgery with shared brilliance.

Here are five propositions from the paper (pages 333 to 336):

  1. A fixed mindset impedes employees’ engagement by virtue of diminishing their enthusiasm for development.
  2. A growth mindset facilitates employee engagement by cuing more positive beliefs about effort than a fixed mindset.
  3. A growth mindset facilitates employee engagement by prompting attentiveness to task-relevant information.
  4. A growth mindset facilitates employee engagement by cuing people to interrogate setbacks for useful information about
    how to improve.
  5. A fixed mindset impedes employee engagement by virtue of diminishing positive interactions with others.

Note that Keating and Heslin focus much of their analysis on how mindsets affect our relationships with others and our judgments about them. This claim is not touchy-feely sentimentalism, it is based on hard evidence. As I wrote in a previous post about the future of the church in America, our community can’t learn together unless we recognize and resist our cognitive biases. One of the most pernicious of these biases, actor-observer bias, leads us to blame other people for problems when we should look for accidental and systemic causes first. In all kinds of organizations, including churches, we tend to ignore the effects of our organizational culture, our shared bad habits, and instead blame individuals for our group failures. That’s one way a fixed mindset mires us in failure: we assume others can’t change, punish them (and ourselves), and prevent learning.

Along the way, some of us even become bully bosses, erstwhile “leaders” who don’t just adhere to the bad culture but actively persecute others to reinforce its worst features in the name of loyalty, rule-following, and “professionalism.” Bully bosses have the epitome of a fixed mindset. To them, employees are assets to be managed, not beings to be loved and cared for. The bully boss believes we should cut our losses on under-performing employees, just as we should sell a losing stock. Gratuitous firings to make a point isn’t even the worst thing the bullies do. No, the worst bully doesn’t even fire the underperformer. Instead, he revels in her low performance, puts her on display, and humiliates her to accentuate his own ascendancy. This is not leadership, it’s predation.

Pursuing a growth mindset is a great way to confront our cognitive biases, growing our ability to recognize and resist them. Keating and Heslin conclude their article with recommendations on how use a growth mindset to increase employee engagement:

  1. Organizational culture: work to replace a “culture of genius” with a “culture of growth.” The culture of genius is like Enron, that infamous corporate hellhole, seeking to hire and promote “the smartest guy in the room” and to fire and belittle the bottom 10%. In contrast, a culture of growth raises up the bottom 10% through training and encouragement and recognizes that modest teamwork can beat a heroic individual every time.
  2. Managerial actions: managers should praise the process of learning rather innate talent.
  3. Self-development initiatives: “People think, feel, act, and interact like someone with a growth mindset when they construe challenging situations as opportunities for learning, growth, and attainment, rather than as encounters in which their (lack of) inherent abilities will be diagnosed and judged.” (page 339) The authors offer lists of exercises for explicit engagement with the growth mindset idea, so it can be understood and acted on by everyone.

Application to the church: discipleship needs a growth mindset

What if the church were to approach discipleship from a growth mindset, investing in higher expectations instead of accepting fixed limits? We might ask some new questions. These are just examples, you can think of your own:

  • Why do so few Christians other than seminarians learn biblical Greek? Why don’t churches learn it and teach it?
  • Why do so few churches have loaner vehicles for members and the needy? Do we believe personal trustworthiness and corporate insurance liabilities aren’t problems the church can solve?
  • Why do we scold people for not giving enough money to the congregation? Why don’t we work with them to increase their earnings, so they can give back in gratitude to their supportive community?
  • Why do we lament the culture’s turn away from Christianity because we don’t like what we see? If we want more of a voice, why do so many of us demand that our pastors stay out of politics and economics? Is it because we don’t like what we know they would say to us about those areas?

Christ told us we could move mountains. Are we moving mountains? Why not?

Please post your comments below, or like our Facebook page and join the discussion there.

An upcoming post will discuss what the church-at-work can learn from retired General Stanley McChrystal’s new book Team of Teams. Stay tuned!

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