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July 7, 2021

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Escape shackles of a fixed mindset to fuel growth

“I can’t make this any better. This is too hard. I can’t afford to make any mistakes.”

Sound familiar? These are the thoughts of a leader with a fixed mindset, trapped by the fear of humiliation, uncertainty, rejection or other threats.

“I can improve. This may just take some time. Mistakes are part of learning.”

This is the voice of the growth mindset, empowered by the willingness to say yes and ask for what they need to thrive, to make a genuine effort and to keep going when things get tough. It’s no secret which mindset is best suited to the complex challenges of leading teams and companies, even more so against the backdrop of COVID-19 and digital disruption.

In a recent forum titled “How to encourage a growth mindset in yourself and those you lead,” participating professors drew on research by American psychologist Carol Dweck to explain and explore how different beliefs affect corporate behavior and how to recognize and overcome these challenges.

Some might wonder why the right mindset matters.

Cairns-Lee explained that the way leaders frame their challenges influences the way they think, feel, take action and interact with others.

Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe that intelligence and ability are fixed and determine outcomes. They think that effort signals a lack of talent. Leaders adopt these beliefs because they want to look smart and avoid failure.

“Our aim is to look intelligent as we don’t want to expose ourselves to threats that may make us look less intelligent,” Cairns-Lee said.

People with growth-oriented mindsets, on the flipside, want to learn and grow. They think that intelligence and ability can be developed and that effort is a sign of dedication.

Are you more fixed or growth oriented?

The overall kind of mindset you have impacts the way you respond to challenges, obstacles, effort, feedback and the success of others.

For example, those with a growth mindset embrace challenges with a positive attitude, try to find ways to overcome obstacles, don’t mind making an effort, are open to and learn from feedback, and support the success of friends and colleagues.

Fixed mindsets encourage us to step back from challenges and avoid or ignore obstacles, leading us to see effort as humiliation or as a sign of inadequacy, to reject feedback, and to feel jealous of others’ success.

“The fixed mindset occurs when people are moving away from HURT,” Cairns-Lee said, using the acronym to list the scenarios that those individuals fear the most — humiliation, uncertainty, rejection and threat.

She illustrated the concept of the growth mindset with the mnemonic YET — standing for yes (being able to say yes while also asking for what you need to thrive), effort, and tenacity. Embracing this YET philosophy, she said, would help leaders become more growth-oriented.

For most executives, this involves acknowledging and managing a trade-off between not wanting to lose and playing to win. That means managing tensions such as fighting the urge to maintain the status quo and wanting to reach your potential, or not looking incompetent and seeking improvement.

“It is a continuum between the two,” Jennifer Jordan added. “None of us are completely fixed and none of us are completely growth — we are somewhere in between.”

Many of the traits of a fixed mindset are developed at an early age, according to experts.

For example, when influential people in our lives tell us we are good or bad at certain tasks or school subjects, such as art, music or math. The same cycle tends to happen at work.

“What makes you more fixed or growth-oriented is the environment you are in and the environment you were raised in,” Jordan said. “Empowering environments encourage one to take on challenges, moving people to a more growth mindset.”

To support executives as they seek to adopt the YET pathway to a growth mindset, they offered three steps to minimize the influence of the fixed mindset on a personal level.

1. Commit to deliberate practice

2. Deal with the demons of defensiveness and defeat

3. Listen to your fixed mindset and talk back

In addition, teams could be encouraged to embrace a growth mindset by leaders:

•Asking what the triggers are that would help them get into a growth mindset and what triggers push them into a fixed mindset

•Ending meetings with the question: Was that a growth or a fixed mindset meeting?

•Being aware of, and trying to mitigate, the “set-up to fail” syndrome

Heather Cairns-Lee is Adjunct Professor of leadership at IMD. Jennifer Jordan is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD.


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