It’s easy to get overly conclusive when talking about growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be improved over time. We may say, “Oh, I totally have a fixed mindset,” or “After all these years, I finally have a growth mindset.”
But the truth is, that’s inherently a fixed-mindset way of viewing the concept, since it presumes that the mindset itself is set in stone. In reality, people don’t have a fixed or growth mindset; rather, they use a combination of the two depending on the situation.
The NeuroLeadership Institute has caught this subtle difference many times over during various industry research projects, most recently culminating in our white paper “Impact Report: Growth Mindset Supports Organizations Through Disruption.”
The paper features five case studies from companies making growth mindset come to life and driving lasting change. This variety made it clear that fixed and growth mindsets weren’t “switches” that people turned on or off. They were more like dimmers, capable of being dialed up or down depending on the context.
How to actually think about growth mindset
Think about your own life. Let’s say you like to cook and sing; maybe you’re learning a foreign language, too. At work you’ve just been promoted and now you oversee a larger team than you did in your previous role.
It’s quite possible —probable, even — that you approach each of these domains with a different mindset about your abilities. Perhaps you relish the chance to try new recipes in the kitchen, and add more French to your vocabulary — classic growth mindset. At the same time, you feel like your singing chops aren’t good enough and leadership skills have hit a ceiling, each possibly indicating a fixed mindset.
All those scenarios make it impossible to fairly say you have a fixed or growth mindset, because you’re using both all the time.
NLI’s research over the past several months made it clear that leaders should go easy on themselves when developing a growth mindset, since the skill itself is something new to nurture. The key is to recognize when thoughts become self-limiting, and then actively work to move toward growth.
If leaders can make this mental shift, past research suggests, they’ll be better at instilling growth mindset in their direct reports. In time, they can even create what NLI calls a Growth Mindset Culture — a confluence of growth mindset across an organization, each employee finding more value in getting better as opposed to being the best.
This article is the fourth installment in NLI’s series, Growth Mindset: The Master Class, a 12-week campaign to help leaders see how the world’s largest organizations are putting growth mindset to use.