The Biggest Myth About Growth Mindset

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Authored by

NLI Staff

Growth mindset has gained a lot of popularity in organizations over the past decade, now standing as many leaders’ favorite buzzword for boosting productivity.

But there’s still one myth that widely persists among companies — at the risk of employee and organizational well-being. Contrary to what many leaders believe, growth mindset does not refer to a person’s limitless capacity to get things done.

For the past three months, NLI has interviewed HR practitioners at more than 20 major organizations around the world, as part of an industry research project. Our goal was to find out what, exactly, leaders were doing when they implemented growth mindset around their organization.

We found a range of interpretations. Some thought growth mindset was purely a focus on business growth. Others saw it as the belief that any achievement was possible, no matter how unrealistic the goal.

In fact, our working definition of growth mindset is: the dual belief that skills and abilities can be improved, and that developing your skills and abilities is the purpose of the work you do.

On occasion, managers who hadn’t quite grasped this concept thought employees with a growth mindset were happy to take on projects endlessly. If they claimed their plate was full, they were seen as having a fixed mindset — a scarlet “F” around many offices.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that everyone, at some point, faces issues of “capacity,” or the brain’s limit for cognitive function. There is only so much thought people can devote to their various tasks before their output begins to plateau, or even decrease.

Managers who keep overloading their employees with work actually inhibit, not propel, long-term progress. What’s more, by making a judgment on people’s ability to handle more and more tasks, managers risk damaging employees’ sense of status. What initially may have been a point of pride could turn into shame over poor productivity.

For the sake of employee and organizational health, leaders should align on the true definition of growth mindset. Saying your plate is full isn’t a sign that your thinking is flawed. In fact, it may be the opposite — a sign that in order to develop your skills, the most important thing you can do is pause, and focus on the job at hand.

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