Fill in the blank and then read this sentence out loud: I’ve always been terrible at __________. What did you use to fill in the blank? Was it easy or challenging to complete this sentence? Did you have to search hard for something you don’t feel good at, or were there a few options on the tip of your tongue?
The notion that you’ve always been (and always will be) unskilled in an area is one way to illustrate the concept of fixed mindset. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset is the belief that you are born with a certain amount of ability and you are unable to further develop in this area. It’s as if your skills are frozen in time. A fixed mindset is contrasted with a growth mindset, which is described as the ability to develop and grow with effort, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset see their current abilities as the place where they are starting but—with dedication—will certainly surpass.
It is likely we have adopted fixed mindsets about a host of skills and capabilities—some of which undoubtedly have been developed from old or inaccurate data (such as a low grade on a test in grade school or a flippant comment from a previous manager) and yet we’ve harbored these belief systems without challenge for years now. What’s more, the effects of a fixed mindset probably are impacting us more than we think—especially at work. A fixed mindset can influence the degree to which we feel comfortable taking risks, sharing innovative ideas, persisting through a challenging task, and (not surprisingly) ultimately can lead to a fear of failure, reduced motivation, and even complete disengagement.
We might begin to see feedback as threatening, especially if we don’t see a way forward. We might perceive our highly skilled peers in the same threatening light instead of feeling inspired by their achievements. Since we believe we will not be successful, we might wonder if it’s even worth trying at all.
What’s interesting about the research on mindsets is that they differ based on the competency. For example, we can feel confident about our ability to think strategically and yet less so about our ability to present our ideas to a room of executives. We can feel strong when building rapport with our colleagues and stakeholders, and concerned about demonstrating the ROI from our training efforts. And if we have a complicated relationship with our learning and development (L&D) capabilities and our mindsets, we’ll find the same story with our learners and their capabilities and mindsets regardless of their industry.
Combatting a Fixed Mindset
So what can we do about it? As L&D professionals, it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity for us to combat a fixed mindset:
- First, build awareness about your own mindset positions. Where do you have a growth or a fixed mindset, and why? How do you represent your growth or fixed mindset with your team and peers? Pay attention to your language about your own abilities, especially for areas where you may harbor a fixed mindset. It is possible we have revealed our fixed mindsets and unknowingly influenced others around us, especially if you are a leader. Listen, learn, and (as needed) rectify.
- If you are involved in leadership development, drive awareness to implicit theories of intelligence (i.e., a fixed versus a growth mindset); this can provide a vocabulary for performance conversations. Coach managers to be on the lookout for statements such as “I’ve never been good at…,” “I’m worried about…,” or “There’s no way I’ll be successful at…” so they can help employees identify their fixed mindsets. This can open the door for managers to better understand the source of these beliefs and identify where or how they can provide support and frankly challenge these notions. You might even assign “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” and organize a reading group to discuss.
- If you are involved in onboarding or continued education, normalize failure as a critical component of learning. It’s great that we seek to create a safe space for our learners to ask questions by assuring “there are no silly questions.” Now let’s extend this practice when someone volunteers to answer a question and misses the mark. Meet wrong answers with the right answer and also acknowledgement for the attempt. Learning can be stressful at work because the stakes are high. Let’s honor the courage it takes to try.
There’s something else we should discuss here. While mindset is making its way into the learning and development zeitgeist, the concept of self-efficacy is less emphasized, and in order to challenge our fixed mindsets, it’s helpful to uncover its origin. Psychologist Albert Bandura coined self-efficacy in 1977 and defined it as an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task. We can think of it as a cognitive self-evaluation, and research has found whether or not we think we can do something, we are often correct. A recent study revealed a positive correlation between growth mindset and self-efficacy, specifically the self-efficacy linking the sources of mastery experiences (your previous experiences with a given activity) and verbal persuasions (the verbal feedback you have received about your performance with a given activity) with a growth mindset. So what can we as leaders do to promote growth mindsets given these two specific forms of self-efficacy? Managers in particular can apply this research in a couple ways:
- Commit to providing specific, actionable, and timely feedback often with your teams. Providing constructive feedback (do less/do more of this specific behavior) is as important as consistently highlighting specific wins (why this mattered, the impact of this behavior).
- Create peer-to-peer learning channels on your team. One of the best ways to reinforce skills is teaching them to a colleague. This benefits both parties. With this approach, you’ll build mastery experiences and verbal persuasions together. Adding a mentorship expectation for more tenured team members is one way to get started.
A Portfolio of Mastery Experiences and Verbal Persuasion
The L&D industry is evolving at a rapid pace and now is the time to assess our mindsets so we are best positioned to enable our organizations, clients, and teams. L&D professionals play a vital role in uncovering and challenging mindsets that have hindered one’s ability to achieve their potential. By building infrastructure that enables a supportive and challenging environment across our learning journeys, we can cultivate a portfolio of mastery experiences and verbal persuasion that shapes our self-efficacy and contributes to a growth mindset.