What does failure mean to you? Is it an indication that you lack talent, are dumb, or otherwise incapable? Or does it suggest an opportunity for growth and development? Carol Dweck has devoted a lot of time and research to exploring these different mindsets and their associated outcomes. The former reflects a fixed mindset and is defined by an underlying belief that human qualities are carved in stone. The latter reflects what Dweck calls a growth mindset and hinges upon the assumption that human qualities can be changed by effort.
The growth mindset’s belief that success comes from hard work and dedication helps people to conceptualise failure as an opportunity for growth and development. Alternatively, the fixed mindset’s assumption that success is an indication of innate brilliance creates expectations that talented people shouldn’t have to work hard for success. This in turn leads to an aversion to challenge, a constant need for external validation, and the avoidance or denial of anything that could result in perceptions of failure.
There are lots of examples of the disastrous consequences of fixed “talent” mindsets in organisations. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s account of Enron provides a great example (The Smartest Guys in the Room). Enron’s leadership created a culture that worshipped talent. This led Enron “stars” to constantly feel the need to prove how great they were. It also led them to be more concerned about appearing deficient than actually addressing shortfalls or questioning their decisions. We all know how that story ended.
To see examples of where a growth mindset takes companies you just have to study the success stories in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great. The manner in which Jack Welch took General Electric from a $14 billion dollar company to a $490 billion one exemplifies the power of the growth mindset. Welch saw himself as a guide of others, not a judge. He selected people for their mindset rather than their pedigrees. He wasted no time communicating his message to GE employees: This Company is not about self-importance, it is about growth. And he walked the talk.
So what can you do to foster a growth mindset within your organisation? According to Dweck there are a few steps that really make a difference. One is to stop thinking and talking about talent in terms of “naturals”, but instead start thinking and talking in terms of potential. Another is to praise the process that led to success, not ascribe it to innate qualities. In other words, praising hard work and dedication rather than brilliance or intelligence. So…good to great, or Enron, the choice is yours.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Dweck, C., Chiu, C., & Hong Y. (1995). Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A World from Two Perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.
McLean, B., & Elkind, P. (2003). The smartest guys in the room: The amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron. New York: Penguin Group.
Welch, J., & Welch, S. (2005). Winning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.