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To Realise Workforce Potential: Manage with a Growth Mindset

October 03, 2012
Business strategy


​During the past three decades, research pioneered by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has accumulated a vast literature on “implicit person theories”. These are peoples’ assumptions – known as mindsets – about the malleability of personal attributes such as intelligence and personality. It has become well-established that mindsets affect how people think, feel and act in achievement situations.

​About 45% of the children in Dweck’s studies, and 50% of the managers in studies by Peter Heslin, a professor of management at the Australian School of Business, were found to hold the fixed mindset that, essentially, people tend not to change much over time.

Roughly the other half of the population – those with a growth mindset – focus more on how the personal attributes that guide behaviour are quite malleable by life experiences such as education, challenges and developmental relationships.

A recent series of studies led by Heslin looked into the implications of fixed mindsets and how they can be changed. This research aims to address damaging employee reactions including demoralisation, disengagement, absenteeism and turnover, and a sense that they are not being given a “fair go” by their manager.

“It turns out that managers with a fixed mindset tend to demoralise everyone, including themselves,” says Heslin, who leads the EMBA Managerial Skills course at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM).

“It’s imperative to recognise how readily a vicious cycle can be created by anchoring on a negative first impression of someone’s performance capabilities,” he says. “A person’s initial achievements in a role are often not predictive of what they are ultimately able to achieve. Employees resent feeling unsupported and underestimated. Imagine how frustrating it would be to be managed by someone who did not believe in your potential to improve your performance or advance in your career?”

Managers with a fixed mindset can also be dysfunctional in how they deal with top performers. “After categorising someone as a star, a fixed mindset can lead managers to not recognise when remedial action is needed,” Heslin says.

 “For instance, what if someone who was once a high performer in a nuclear power plant – which is where we conducted our initial research on the role of mindsets in organisations – was no longer performing adequately. Having been categorised as a star performer by a manager with a fixed mindset can prevent an employee’s currently inadequate performance from being recognised and acted upon. The implications could be catastrophic in this context, as in other arenas such as the medical, military and security industries when competent performance is imperative for human safety and wellbeing.”

Everyone is Not Equal

"Sure you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - not anyone can become anything and some people have more innate ability in certain areas than others. Our research is nonetheless revealing that it is dangerous and often costly for managers to focus primarily on that and thus lock people into a particular performance category, regardless of whether it’s winner, loser, dud, or superstar. Sustained attentiveness to employees’ scope for performance improvement through suitable coaching and developmental experiences is a much more productive approach.”

Beginning in 1995, Dweck and her colleagues reported that students with a fixed mindset developed deeply encoded evaluative labels for others (such as lazy or intelligent) based on hearing an anecdote about a single behaviour. She theorised that these labels acted as an anchor that was resistant to change.

In a series of studies published in 2005, a collaboration between Heslin,Gary Latham from the University of Toronto and Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University found that a fixed mindset blinded managers to variation above or below an employee’s initial performance level. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset were more data-driven, less anchored by past impressions, and therefore more capable of providing an accurate and unbiased appraisal of employee performance.

Subsequent research by Heslin and his colleagues found that employees believed managers with a growth mindset were more willing and capable of providing helpful on-the-job coaching. Intuitively, it makes sense that if fixed-mindset managers were sceptical about employees’ ability to change, they would be unlikely to invest their precious time and resources in coaching their employees.

Heslin’s latest work, again co-authored with VandeWalle and published in the Journal of Management, sheds initial light on how employees react to managers as a function of managers’ mindsets. In short, it shows that when managers hold a growth mindset, employees feel that they receive a more procedurally fair performance appraisal (probably reflecting it being more data-based, accurate and supplemented with coaching). Employees will thus be more committed and willing to go the extra mile for their organisation – outcomes that are well known to have significant business benefits.

Can a Growth Mindset Be Grown?

A growth mindset can be systematically developed within individuals and teams, according to Heslin, who has developed and refined a workshop program during the past decade that is now being deployed within leading Australian organisations. The workshops aim to embed within managers the notion that improvement in employee performance is almost always possible, given the plasticity of the human brain and that virtually everyone’s skills can be honed to some extent with suitable guidance, encouragement and deliberative practice.

“The process is key,” Heslin says. “It’s easy to read that change is almost always possible and say, ‘Yeah, I agree with all that’. However, recalling instances of intransigent individuals readily hooks managers right back into the limiting fixed mindset. Thus, managers seem to benefit from experiencing a process of deep immersion in the potentiality of a growth mindset. This involves working through the various workshop exercises, rolling up your sleeves and doing it all chapter and verse.”

Katrina King, from resources giant BHP Billiton, is using Heslin’s work on growth mindsets as a key component of the organisation’s Metallurgical Coal Leadership Program, in partnership with AGSM Executive Education. “It has been wonderful to see managers using this latest thinking back in the business to engage stakeholders more effectively,” King says.

Colleen Durant, head of leadership and talent at banking group Westpac, says: "The focus on objectively assessing employees' contributions –  what they have actually achieved in the past six to 12 months – as opposed to labelling employees as superstars (or not), builds a more inclusive and respectful work environment.”

Naomi Fox, senior manager at AGSM Executive Education, says “a growth mindset is disarmingly simple to grasp and immediately resonates with managers. The art of developing a growth mindset, before translating understanding into behaviours that engage and inspire people, requires deliberate practice. Organisations that embrace growth mindsets as an essential capability for leaders create a platform for competitive advantage.”

Heslin offers three tips for managers seeking to foster a growth mindset:

  • Recognise that initial efforts are not necessarily indicative of what a person can ultimately achieve. Ensure adequate time and other resources are devoted to improving individual and team performance (as well as your own), which almost invariably involves some experimentation, risk and failure. What may have enabled success in the past is often inadequate to meet emerging challenges.
  • Avoid focusing primarily on stars or declaring brilliance. This creates a fixed mindset within employees, making them risk averse and concerned with not jeopardising their illustrious status.
  • Perhaps most importantly, resist routinely diagnosing people. Focus more on what people have done and are doing, as well as how their strengths can be built upon, rather than on the kind of person they are. Declared stars often fall, but people rarely outperform any negative labels assigned to them. It’s more productive to help people appreciate their actual performance and the viable opportunities to proactively fine-tune it.

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