Can Growth Mindsets be Nurtured for Organisational Change?
Every organisation that I speak to seems to be undertaking a small or large transformation process. These change management processes often focus on current or aspiring leaders, but lasting change requires transformation at all levels of an organisation.
I have written previously about how encouraging initiative and self-management within individuals is a key component to achieving successful organisational transformation (something which is also linked to improved future job performance). But how much are these key transformative attributes tied to each person’s mindset and outlook on life? And are these mindsets innate to each individual’s nature, or can individuals be nurtured to achieve meaningful organisational change?
Determinism vs free will
Since the earliest days of the nature vs. nurture debate in developmental psychology — in which it was argued that success was hereditary, or that mindsets can be changed by external influence — ideas of determinism and free will have been added into the argument. Determinism, briefly, is the idea that a person’s character, actions and abilities are a product of a fixed set of criteria: by our DNA (genetic determinism), upbringing and experience (psychic determinism), or our surroundings and social circles (environmental determinism). However, as highlighted in Steven Covey’s classic book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, self-awareness (the knowledge that you have a choice), imagination (you can think of an alternative) and conscience (how your actions align with your principals) suggest that we can exercise free will and choose our actions.
To a certain extent, then, the question of whether mindsets can be nurtured has more to do with whether a person believes that they can grow and change themselves, or that their abilities are fixed and already determined.
The growth of fixed mindsets
Similar to determinism, people with fixed mindsets believe they have a certain amount of ability and there is little they can do to change it. This compares to a growth mindset in which a person believes that their abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies and learning from others.
In recent years, partly caused by the need for individuals to work more independently due to COVID-19 lockdowns and the rise of remote working, employers have created a demand for employees who have a growth (rather than fixed) mindset. But this demand for a growth mindset within business does not appear to be reflected in society as a whole. If it can be assumed that many societies are becoming more polarised, then we may be causing an unvirtuous loop towards fixed mindsets. As described by Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor, in a paper that won an award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions — once people with “fixed mindsets have labelled an individual or stereotyped a group, they tend to reject information that runs counter to their label or stereotype”. So if we are to break this cycle and try to cultivate growth mindsets that can adapt and change along with organisations, we need to look at how a fixed or a growth mindset comes about in the first place.
Why schools are discouraging growth mindsets
We have to go back to childhood to understand why some of us have fixed rather than growth mindsets. There is no one size fits all answer, but in a classic study (co-authored by Dweck) looking at the effect of praising effort rather than outcome, the authors showed that praising ability or intelligence leads to a fixed mindset. Conversely, praising the process (the effort or strategy used) led to a growth mindset. The authors found that when faced with tasks that were difficult to accomplish, those who had been praised for their intelligence or abilities were less likely to take on a difficult task as failure could lead to a negative reflection on their intelligence or abilities. Ironically, over time, those with a fixed mindset fall behind those who are praised for the effort (and develop a growth mindset) as they do not attempt to push themselves further.
Unfortunately, as mentioned in the conclusion of a 2017 study, schooling systems in the west, with their emphasis on accountability and results, are perpetuating a fixed mindset in children due to a constant focus on the result, rather than the process. This is necessary in order to improve their chances to get to a better university or job — in short to ‘succeed’ — despite evidence to the contrary that ‘success’ is actually more closely linked to a growth mindset. When individuals trained in a fixed, results-based mindset enter the workforce, there is no motivation to push themselves and gain value from the effort involved in work. As a result, systems of education and work are becoming drastically misaligned and no longer work together to create a working world that benefits both individuals and organisations alike.
Fixing the problem of fixed mindsets
Transforming an organisation is not simply a case of imposing a new way of doing things, it must always take into account the perspectives and mindsets of the people that comprise that organisation. A mis-match between the business demand for adaptable, agile employees and the systems that train those employees into fixed patterns of thinking is leading to many failed attempts at organisational transformation.
Whether or not our school, university, and employment systems will change to help develop growth mindsets, or continue to focus rigidly only on results, remains to be seen. But if we want to truly transform our organisations in a meaningful way, then growth mindsets will need to be nurtured one way or the other, innate or not.