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How your mindset might be affecting your company’s innovation

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Dweck has conducted extensive research on how a mindset can affect a person’s behavior and method of learning. I spoke with Dweck about her book and how different mindsets can affect a company’s ability to grow and innovate.

Describe the core concept for us behind “Mindset”?

People have different beliefs about their talents and abilities. Some people hold a “fixed mindset”: They believe that their talents and abilities are fixed traits; you have only a certain amount and that’s that. This is a mindset that turns people away from risks or challenges that may reveal deficiencies and, in this way, can work against innovation and growth.

But other people hold a “growth mindset”: They believe that their talents and abilities can be developed over time through learning, dedication and mentorship. They don’t necessarily believe that everyone’s the same or that anyone can be anything, but they believe that everyone can grow their abilities. This is a mindset that leads people to stretch out of their comfort zone to try new things. They are less interested in proving how smart they are than in getting smarter.

You’re often cited as an expert in education circles. How does your work apply in the workplace?
My work has many applications to the workplace. First, employees and leaders with a fixed mindset are less likely to innovate. Research shows that the prime characteristic of managers who have break-out ideas or products is a growth mindset.

Second, research shows that growth-mindset managers create better work environments. They are more open to feedback from employees (because they’re interesting in learning); they are better mentors (because they believe in development); and they are perceived by their workers as more fair (because they believe everyone has the capacity to improve).

Third, those who have a growth mindset acquire the skills for success. For example, research shows that those who believe that negotiators are made (a growth mindset) become better negotiators than those who believe good negotiators are born (a fixed mindset).

Finally, growth-mindset work teams accomplish more. Research shows that teams whose members have a growth mindset set higher standards, keep pushing the envelope, work together better and outperform teams whose members have a fixed mindset.

As I describe in “Mindset,” fixed-mindset leaders are oriented toward personal glory, such as Jeff Skilling of Enron who cultivated an aura genius and a general culture that worshiped genius. Growth-mindset leaders want to maximize everyone’s contributions over time, and therefore create a culture of growth that includes everyone.

Can someone change their own mindset? How?
Yes, it’s never too late. In a fixed mindset, challenges are threatening, criticism is threatening, and the success of others is threatening. But in a growth mindset, all of these offer opportunities to learn.

Learn to listen to the fixed-mindset voice in your head that tells you you have to look smart at all times and that tells you that challenges, criticism and the success of others are indictments of your ability. Answer it back with a growth-mindset voice, as you take on these challenges, listen to criticism, and learn from the success of others.

I explicitly reference your work in my own management philosophy (I tell people on my team that I don’t care if they are “good”; I care about how they are getting “better.” ) What’s your advice for applying these principles to leading a team or even a whole company?
That’s a great strategy! The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of research is how tuned in people are to the dominant values in their environment. You are telling the people on your team what you value — getting better — and they will act accordingly. These messages often come from the top and set the tone for the whole company.

It’s critical that leaders send out the message that innovation and growth are valued, not just “talent.” And they also have to walk the walk. People should be rewarded if they innovate wisely but fail, as long as they can explain the value added to the company by what they did.

A few years ago, I consulted to a major financial company that was transforming itself into a growth-mindset organization from top to bottom. Their conference for new managers was organized around the growth mindset, and the new managers were told explicitly that they were expected to be learners and collaborators, not the people with all the answers. You could hear the sighs of relief in the room as they were given permission to learn and make mistakes. Recently, I heard from the company that these were the most energetic and effective new managers they’d ever had.

Let’s say someone is looking for a job, and they want to be part of an organization that espouses a learning mindset. What are some signs that an employer’s culture supports that?
Great question. Here are some telltale signs of a fixed-mindset culture: emphasis on sheer talent, categorizing and labeling employees by ability, constantly telling themselves (and you) that they are the elite, emphasis on pedigree, lack of respect for many employees and an atmosphere of competition vs. collaboration within the company.

Here the signs of a growth-mindset culture: emphasis on development (mentorships, programs for encouraging growth across the company), a concern for all employees’ progress, respect for everyone’s contribution, teamwork and collaboration. Once you know the signs, it’s surprising how quickly you can pick them up.

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