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Foster a growth mindset

As a coach and professional development provider, I often find myself having some variation of the following conversation with an organization’s chief executive, HR director or program coordinator.

“Please make sure,” they say, “to include lots of practical examples for everyone in the room when you speak.” They explain their request as follows. “Oftentimes when we bring someone in to present a workshop we get blowback, particularly from the old-timers. They’ve told us that other presenters’ content was too theoretical. They also say that the examples may have been useful to others in the room, but it did not address their specific needs.”

As a former teacher and principal, I know exactly what that person is talking about. So often, I would sit through a workshop and wonder about its applicability to me and my classroom. Many others around me would do similarly, and often find other more useful things to do, such as grade papers. When I became principal, I found the problem to be even more acute. Body language and feedback forms shared a constant message questioning workshops’ relevance, utility and application.

Naturally, some of this relates to the program’s structure. Organizations that invest minimally in professional development programming will often invite everyone to a workshop even when the needs, tasks and interests of attendees are different. If the presenter does not bring the audience to a place where they can discuss, process, share and make concrete applications to their specific settings and contexts, it will typically be a long day for all involved. One size can often fit none.

But I often view the pushback as attitudinal, regardless of the group’s composition or the presenter’s capacities and engagement techniques. “Don’t bother me,” they say (or think in their minds,) “I know what I’m doing.” This is particularly true about the proverbial “old dogs” who don’t want to learn new tricks.

Of course, no one wants to admit to being closed to new learning. Instead, they attack the presentation as being too abstract, without enough “ready-made, special for me” examples that they can bring back to the workspace and use immediately without effort.

Where do such adverse attitudes come from? Is it laziness? Is arrogance at play, suggesting that there is nothing that you can teach me that I don’t already know?

I would say yes to both, at least to some degree. Most people won’t work harder unless they see a real benefit in doing so. And if past processes have worked, why should I assume that your new way is better? But findings about mindsets lead me to believe that the problem may often have less to do with bad attitudes than with limiting beliefs about ourselves and our ability to master new skills. Another factor, no doubt, is whether the leader has helped their teams understand the importance and utility of the session content. If people understand that they will need to do something with what is being presented, they are likelier to listen and find ways to make relevant applications.

But I think that there’s another factor at play here. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success,” Stanford professor Carol Dweck talks about people’s mindsets with regards to their ability to perform new tasks. She talks about people who stay squarely in their comfort zones and others that venture well beyond them. Dweck labeled these mindsets as “fixed” and “growth,” respectively.

A fixed mindset refers to the belief that skill and capacity are fundamentally attached to a person’s genetic composition. Either you “have it” and are good at it, or you’re not. This applies to everything from academics (“I’m not much of a math guy”) to business and social situations (“I don’t know marketing,”) as well as music, athletics, and more.

Those with growth mindsets, on the other hand, tend to believe that skills can be learned, at least to some degree of proficiency. They maintain and that success depends mainly on one’s willingness to learn, practice and pursue their goals. These men and women are not content to rest on their laurels. They continuously strive to learn new things and to develop new capabilities. They do so in part because of a great drive to succeed. But they also possess a deep sense that they can stretch their inborn talents if they are willing to make the effort.

Take for example, Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever. Jordan was undeniably a gifted athlete. But so were many others that didn’t make it in professional basketball. Jordan became the best because he was driven to be the best. No one competed more vigorously and consistently or wanted to win more than he did. But he also was willing to learn, from coaches and teammates, and work to improve his areas of weakness in order to excel. Effort alone — without the recognition that new skills could be learned — would never have produced the desired outcome.

Most people are not exclusively fixed or growth-oriented in how they think. Most of us are somewhere in between. The farther the task from our comfort zone, the more that we throw up “disability blocks” that justify our lack of effort to learn.

The job of the leader is to promote awareness of growth capabilities and get people beyond their limiting beliefs. It’s not that you can’t do it. You just can’t do it yet.

How can leaders help promote more of a growth mindset at work to ensure that they get the most out of their teams?

  1. Start with the interview. When meeting potential candidates, ask them what they’re good at and how they became good in those areas. See what their past challenges were and what they did to overcome them. Ask them how they would approach scenarios that demand more of them than what is in their present comfort zones. If they possess a healthy combination of skill and experience and also demonstrate a growth mindset, you can be confident that you’re bringing a lifelong learner into your organization that will add much value to the team.
  2. Communicate its importance. Tell everyone in the organization about it and why it matters. Tell stories that capture its benefits, such as someone who was stuck that broke through and what that paradigm shift meant for him and his organization.
  3. Make the required knowledge and skills available. It’s much easier to demand this of someone if you give them the tools to find answers and become better. Build strong libraries and resource centers for easy reference and learning. Develop intranet groups for staff communication and idea sharing. Identify resident experts that can coach and mentor others.

Leaders who promote growth mindsets at work will find that their team is more learning-oriented and adaptive, two crucial qualities of the 21st-century worker.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership.

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