November 07, 2018

Leadership for a Growth Mindset Culture

I recently met someone named Michael. At the end of a Storytelling Event for one of our Leaps programs, he got up in front of a room of his colleagues and shared his story of trying (and struggling, and trying again) to write a screenplay. Last year I worked with a high school teacher named Chris. He was developing a program that introduced students to design thinking as a process for responding to local social challenges. On top of keeping up with an entirely new course load, he was challenging himself to create more inquiry-based experiences.

Although these examples come from different people with different occupations, they do have one thing in common: they are displays of growth mindset.

As I mentioned in my previous post, growth mindset is the concept that our character, intelligence, and abilities are malleable and capable of being developed with intention, effort, and support from others. If you operate with a fixed mindset, you believe your talents and intelligence are predetermined. If that’s the case, what’s the use of working hard or asking for help?

Try putting yourself in either person’s shoes for minute, and ask yourself: In addition to practicing growth mindset yourself, what else would you need to be able to act on that mindset?

Shifting Culture to Embrace Growth Mindset

Michael and Chris both work in organizations striving to embrace a growth mindset culture: they encourage honest, constructive feedback; they promote collaboration and sharing; they recognize effort; and they acknowledge risk and failure as inevitable and essential parts of professional growth.

Leadership plays a huge role in setting the culture of any organization, be it a creative agency or a high school. Whether you’re the principal, a CEO, a project manager, or the organizer of your community garden, implicit in your role is a responsibility to help others grow, excel, and feel fulfilled by their work. Offering opportunities for growth is not enough. It also requires building a culture that prompts people to confidently step into those opportunities.

A growth mindset culture is good for your bottom line - whether that line is about improving academic outcomes for students, or bringing a new product to market. It has also proven to help create more trusting, inclusive, and diverse workplaces.

So, as a leader within your school, organization, or team, how can you begin to encourage a more growth mindset-oriented culture?

1. Start by looking inward.

A leader whose actions are informed by a growth mindset encourages those around her to embody a growth mindset too. We are all a mix of growth and fixed mindsets, however, and while we might like to think that we embody a growth mindset all the time, chances are that mischievous fixed mindset creeps into our thought patterns more than we realize.

For me, the fixed mindset kicks into gear when I find myself in situations that feel like they’re beyond the limits of my professional abilities. “You want me to facilitate that - alone - for how long?!” For others, triggering situations might be ones that push their prowess with a particular skill or athletic ability, or a particular type of social situation.

If you can identify what triggers your fixed mindset thoughts, you can be ready to replace them with growth mindset-oriented ones in the future.

Try it out: Keep a journal of your activities for a few days, noting the mindsets you’re adopting towards them. Then reflect: What’s something you’re currently doing or learning related to your work that you approach with a growth mindset, and with a fixed mindset? Is there anything you can do to adopt a growth mindset towards the latter?

Take this one step further by sharing with your colleagues what it is you’re trying to learn, why it’s challenging for you. Ask for their feedback, as well as how they can support you. Vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness - in fact, it’s a sign of courage.

2. Create space for vulnerability and failure.

Speaking of vulnerability, for people to be able to push the boundary of what they’re capable of, they need two things. First, they need to be able to fail every now and then. If there’s no room for improvement, how do you improve?

Failing, and allowing others to fail, is an uncomfortable prospect, especially when the stakes are high. But not all failures are created equally.

Some kinds of failure are totally avoidable. For example, I forgot to return a pair of shoes I purchased within the 30-day return window. I totally could have avoided this if I’d just put a reminder on my calendar, but I didn’t.

Others are unavoidable. If you oversee a manufacturing facility, you might have thousands of employees and millions of moving parts, all of which need to synchronize perfectly to produce flawless products. Inevitably, there will be an error here and there.

Then there are “failures at the frontier.” These happen in pursuit of innovation - developing a new product, or designing a new curriculum. When you’re entering new territory, you may have to fail a lot before you to get something good. But as long as you incorporate what you learned into your next attempt, then the failure is worthwhile.

"Whether we coach, advise, counsel, facilitate, or mentor, the effectiveness of what we do depends in large measure on our beliefs about human potential. The expressions “to get the best out of someone” and “your hidden potential” imply that more lies within the person waiting to be released." ―Sir John Whitmore

Try it out: Take a cue from the father of Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. At your next team meeting, ask your colleagues to share one thing they’ve failed at recently.

The second thing people need in order to step into a growth mindset is to be able to ask for help. So often we frame the prospect of asking for help as a sign of incompetence - but what if we thought of it as proof that we’ve pushed ourselves beyond our comfort zone? If you find yourself needing help, it’s likely because you’ve chosen not to take the easy, straightforward path.

Try it out: At your next team or staff meeting, ask each person to share with the group (1) one thing they’re working on that’s challenging, and (2) what kind of support would be helpful, and from whom.

3. Provide high-impact feedback.

Similar to how I suggested providing feedback to children in my last post, giving growth mindset-oriented feedback to those you manage means relating outcomes to effort, not natural ability.

When someone is excelling, use specifics to explain exactly what they did that helped them achieve, as well as what they could do to continue improving. When someone is struggling or when you need to give tough feedback, underscore to him that your intention is not to point to what went wrong, but rather to help them grow. Be open-minded and curious, since it’s possible you don’t have all the information, and you might figure out how you can become a better coach to this person. Lastly, invite the person to participate in the problem-solving process. Ask him, “What ideas do you have? What steps can you take, by when? How can we check in to discuss your progress?”

This approach to giving feedback can be used across the board - from your lowest to your highest performers. We each might be starting at different points, but there’s no end to what anyone is capable of learning. Here’s more great advice for giving growth mindset-oriented feedback to your colleagues.

Try it out: Think about someone on your team who you need to give some tough feedback to. Write out how you could have the conversation, using the advice above. Then, give it a shot, and afterwards, consider what worked well, and what you can improve on next time you give feedback.

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