Fixed, Growth, and Developmental Mindsets

This piece is adapted from the show notes to Business Second Opinion Podcast episode #117. Use the embedded player below to listen now or subscribe to future episodes on the podcast platform of your choice.

Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset

There is one very popular piece of research which is making its way into the business world, and it has a meaningful addition to leadership and psychology learning. However, it is incomplete and leaves us pursuing an incomplete path. I am speaking about the Growth Mindset, an idea that Carol Dweck of Stanford has popularized. Dweck’s research followed young children, and she noticed that when they were encouraged to think from multiple mindsets it decreased their performance over time. But students who practiced a growth mindset were better able to benefit from learning opportunities.

There is a Harvard Business Review article by Carol Dweck and Kathleen Hogan, titled “How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders”, that describes how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has mandated a growth mindset at the company. This represents a step forward, which innovative companies are increasingly open to. It is tragic when leaders stick to the old idea that everyone is fixed, and you have to pick the crème of the crop. Then everyone fights for a few developed people, rather than developing the people already working for the business.

Startups nearly always work this way, seeing people as pliable, growable, and having potential, when they are first founded at early stage growth. But as these businesses grow, hiring more people on a steep curve, they start borrowing ideas from traditional companies and pretty soon they are laden with many layers of hierarchy, and HR programs based on Behaviorism trying to manage an expanding number of people. They add competencies or specific traits which all people are expected to meet, as if that defined potential.

Potential is seen as moving toward some ideals, not uniqueness. Growth stage companies don’t have any idea about how to manage in a flexible way once they have more than a couple of hundred people. Eventually they all fall into the idea that people are all just people and you have to set standards and manage for sameness.

Why the Growth Mindset is Incomplete

There are more than the two mindsets, fixed and growth, that Dweck points out and does her research around. By introducing a third mindset, we can see what it would add to our understanding and options, including great potential beyond even what is offered by the growth mindset.

It is not about a need to be in sequence. You get the benefit of the intention of the Growth mindset with the third one and much more. You don’t have to choose, but you do have to make a lot of mental shifts by the business and its leadership, maybe even more than moving from fixed to growth.

The third option left out of the research is a Developmental Mindset. This works on the effects of our mental frameworks and thinking processes as well as the intrinsic patterns on our intelligence, state of being, and ableness to manage our motivation and behavior, on demand. You get the benefit of the intention of the growth mindset, and much more, but it does require a lot of mental shifts by the business and its leadership, maybe even more than moving from fixed to growth.

Einstein told us that we often use the same mind that created a problem when we‘re working to create change. Developmental work teaches us to see what is behind our thinking and how to change how we think. With development, we can become discerning about what is behind what we are being taught. We no longer accept things unexamined since unexamined ideas are shaping us out of our awareness. Socrates cautioned us about borrowing and adopting any idea blindly. It is the source of mechanical conditioning, and dangerous to us personally as well as the society we are expected to participate in as a full citizen.

So, it is great that people are moving to seeing themselves as learning beings. But developing themselves is several layers deeper and works from a different idea about what learning really means. It takes building a capacity for discernment of how energies are at work in our mind, our organizations, and our nation. And engaging with them from a real understanding beyond the surface.

Four Contrasts on how Humans and Change Works the Three Mindsets

Epistemological difference

How can we know and what we can know.
Do others, that is experts, know best and we learn from them about ourselves and how we are to live; or can each person know themselves, for themselves and come to create a way to live and contribute? The three mindsets are divided by these choices.

Paradigm difference

How can change happen.
Does potential come from birth and maybe, from working hard and taking on challenges? Is it coupled with changing what we believe about ourselves as learners who aren’t fixed? Or, the third option is, does it require a combination of education in thinking skills to be able to see our own limiting thinking process and shift them, along with how our inner emotional and ego drivers give us opportunity to peel away what does not serve us and bring forward what makes us unique? That third one explains why most problems we see with people, limitations, are merely one of capability in thinking and managing of personal state of being, not hardwired as a human or a particularly human.

Ontological difference

What make humans and individual humans what they are and can become.
Is there such a thing as top talent that we need to find, hire, and retain? Or maybe it is finding more people who have talent that can be developed and grown with training and opportunity. It is the job of great managers to stay on top of looking for this in people, in every encounter and bring them into the great circle of contributors and leaders. And businesses need to find ways for employees to get involved in addition arenas.

Google does this with the 20% time for engineers or as Microsoft does with intense regular examination by managers to identify and nurture “high potentials”, they pour resources into developing them, guiding them into leadership roles. The third ontology is, each and every person is seen as having deep uniqueness, or essence that differentiates them, and this is what you want to develop the potential of, not generically identified characteristics of potential. It calls for the business to design work and education processes, so that each individual can take on developing toward their specific potential, not the aggregated idea of potential.

Scope of Growth

First level or scope is that persons are limited by birth and some training they step up to. The second scope is to expand their role based on skill sets or to change skills sets and extend into territory beyond current expertise, and with the right traits they will thrive and contribute. This second one looks a lot like progression of high potential leaders but with more people having access to this opportunity with a growth mindset. Third in scope is the idea of evolutionary development where each person is in a gradient defined “strategy and market” contribution matrix.

Employees sign up for different levels of contribution over their life in the business that are beyond their current ability level and are supported in developing the needed capability. They see the business opportunity that needs to be tackled by the business and then commit to go back to school, build a plan and team, and take on the impossible that will make all the difference. It awakens the essence of each person, and this is what is necessary to have democracy and social systems work. No one waits for others. No one blames others or feels a victim. Everyone is in a participative democracy, not just a representative democracy.

Actually, we cannot build this nature of society without most businesses stopping the fixed mindset where we condition people to the will of the organization. Or the growth organization where we give more people an opportunity to contribute within the existing and extended business. We need people who are fully and always redefining the organization to make it work for all customers as a personal individual mandate. That builds the mind that we need in and from all beings. This is a very different social technology.

A Deeper Look at Human Mindset

We can choose beyond what experts decided for us, in the mindset we inherited from the study of rats, not humans, where humans must be guided by others and have no self-determining capacity to develop. We can have managers become more rigorous about lifting up more people and giving them more opportunity and experience. We can design for and build capability for humans with personal agency exercised with consideration for the benefit of the whole planet and initiate and carry out promises that grow them in service of the business.

We can see people as a set of competencies and desirable traits, or know each person has an essence that when applied to the business, versus their side job or thinking about a small business they can buy or build. Then they become the source of innovation and creativity based on what only they can bring, through design, research, development of others, or any other set of skills they uniquely develop and bring into the work. We can work from a development mindset, but only if we can differentiate and aspire to give each human a personal expression path for where the business is going, thereby giving them new ableness to make democracy work and to fight for social systems.

Democracy requires independent thinkers with critical thinking skills and ability to manage their own state of being so they can managing their decision making. This means that they need internal locus of control. Others repeatedly making decisions for us, including if we have enough of the traits to be selected for growth, diminishes our experience of internal locus of control. They need to think about the effect on the nation as a whole and all the people in it. This means we think about and take accountability for the effect of our actions on others. But most work designs, including growth model designs are still about an individual and their ability to contribute to the business.

The developmental mindset and the work designs that flow from it have everyone connected to the external stakeholders and making commitments to make their lives better. But it requires deep capability building to create this sense of responsibility for others. Democracy needs people who exercise personal agency to be involved and to be active when it is critical as a citizen. To not only vote, but to engage in dialogue to discover the working of the democracy and explore the implications of different paths. They must not be swayed by others or be bought off for their vote. They must be able to initiate change based on accessing what is nodal to the outcomes. When others make the primary decisions about our involvement in action and the work to be done, it does not develop these skills or considerations, and all of democracy suffers as a result.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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