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This is what leaders often get wrong about growth mind-set

Whenever we learn something new, our instincts may lead us to internalize dangerous myths and mistakes.

This is what leaders often get wrong about growth mind-set
[Images: Softulka/iStock; Jolygon/iStock]

Growth mind-set has come a long way in the past six months.

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This past year, as part of an industry research project, the NeuroLeadership Institute conducted 20 in-depth interviews with some of the world’s largest organizations. The goal was to learn more about how leaders personalize and implement growth mind-set–the belief that you can always get better at something through effort (and time), and that people are motivated to do their work as a result of their desire to grow.

We discovered quite a bit, and found ourselves most intrigued by the myths about growth mind-set, which included the idea that growth mind-set referred only to a focus on profits, or that it meant an employee’s plate could endlessly expand to take on more tasks.

Along the same lines, some leaders thought that growth mind-set meant that talent was irrelevant, and that people with a growth mind-set could achieve anything. While admirable, this attitude may distract employees from the work they do best and cause performance to suffer.

Most of the leaders in our sample were putting growth mind-set to use roughly in terms that help employees grow and succeed. But for those that bought into the myths, the science of learning offers a valuable window into how to improve in the future.

The science of mythmaking

Growth mind-set, like algebra or playing the piano, comes with a bit of a learning curve. For instance, it requires an understanding that at times, we fall into a fixed mind-set–the belief that traits are set in stone (and you’ll always be that terrible cook you once were). In these cases, our task is to tilt toward growth and tell ourselves that those traits are, indeed, malleable. Indeed, it may be most accurate to say we use a whole panoply of growth and fixed mind-sets, depending on the skill we’re employing.

When people are set on doing the work to build their growth mind-set, many will rely on the same strategies that they use for learning other skills. Specifically, the brain will look to personalize the concept by weaving it into mental structures that already exist. It’s a well-established component of learning: People retain things better when they can connect a new idea to old ones.

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Just as we might develop ingenious mnemonic devices in math class or practice songs we enjoy listening to, leaders can tailor their interpretation of growth mind-set based on what means the most to them. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we have a saying that captures this phenomenon: “Meaning makes memory.”

That’s great for retention, but it doesn’t guarantee accuracy. Dangers may arise if leaders start projecting incorrect meanings onto growth mind-set that don’t fit the scientific concept. An overwhelmed leader, for example, might interpret growth mind-set to be a never-ending workload because that interpretation helps solve their problem. And it’s probably not surprising that a leader who conflates growth mind-set with profits is worried about next quarter’s earnings. Because they prioritize productivity and profits, they may interpret growth mind-set through those lenses.

How to make growth mind-set work for an organization

With those insights in mind, leaders can get the most out of growth mind-set by staying true to its definition: a focus on improving–rather than proving–themselves. Research suggests they should look for overlaps between the issues that matter most to them, and what growth mind-set entails. This is another crucial aspect to cultivating a growth mind-set culture. Leaders need to communicate an accurate definition of growth mind-set, and model it in their behavior.

As our research has indicated, growth mind-set doesn’t have to come at the expense of concrete business results, and leaders can utilize them to complement and reinforce those goals. Leaders should be deliberate in how they frame expected outcomes with their team members. For instance, when leaders are discussing sales figures, they can ask about critical learnings from past deals that went well, and those that fell through. Both quantitative and qualitative growth can be examined, as well as how one reinforces the other. By getting clear on growth mind-set, you can get clear on how it fits into your growth strategy overall.


Andrea Derler is the director of industry research at the NeuroLeadership Institute. David Rock is the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute

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