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The Growth-Mindset Workplace, Part I: Permission to Fail

Good leaders understand the importance of causality. Great leaders understand how to influence it. To adapt a popular saying from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Shallow [leaders] believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong [leaders] believe in cause and effect.” Indeed, a deep understanding of causation proves vital to successful leadership, and those in the business world who vigorously investigate causality in a variety of relevant areas—from productivity to customer relations, to employee success and retention—tend to enjoy more success than those who don’t.

Most inquiries into causation, especially those concerned with human behavior, psychology, and intelligence, ultimately come back around to the age-old philosophical debate regarding nature vs. nurture. Which has more of an effect an individual’s potential for success: their biological makeup or their training and nurturing? Such a debate is worthwhile when investigating whether environment, training, or genetic makeup exert the most influence on our lives, abilities, and skill sets. Such is the focus of Stanford University Professor of psychology Carol Dweck’s influential work Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, which explores the causes responsible for the mentality each of us adopt in regards to our potential for intellectual and emotional development.

Properly understood, insight into this topic offers leaders in the business world a better way of understanding the psychology of those whom we lead as it relates to their potential success as employees, especially as it concerns innovation and problem solving. It also provides us with information that can help us, as leaders, work to create environments where each individual has the chance to reach his or her greatest potential (think productivity), stay motivated on the job (think retention), and continue to develop their skills and knowledge base in a progressive and meaningful way (think life-long learner).

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

In the simplest terms, someone with a fixed mindset believes that intellect (along with personality traits) are ultimately static—predetermined, genetically restricted, immutable realities. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset sees intellectual and personality traits more like muscles that can continually be developed, strengthened, and expanded over time. As with our bodies, we may not all start at the same place genetically, but a person with a growth mindset believes that we all have the ability to “hit the gym,” so to speak, increasing our intellectual abilities and broadening our skill sets. As Dweck puts it, “in [a growth] mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just a starting point for development… everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” To a person with a fixed mindset, the hand you’re dealt with operates as the “back wall” of your capabilities. Not everyone has such a brazen version of a fixed mindset, of course. In fact, many people have a subtler version of it or have this mentality only in particular areas (we will be discussing both of these aspects later in the series).

You can test your own mindset here.

Also, to be clear, having a fixed mindset doesn’t mean you can’t be successful; it just means that you have a finite view of the level of that success. Sometimes people with high intelligence and extraordinary skill levels operate fairly well with a fixed mindset (for reasons we will also discuss later), but their view on the fixed nature of their abilities ultimately stifles their potential for improving their creative and innovative capabilities. Now, there are many companies that might be happy with people like that. They tend to do their jobs well and “stay in their lane,” but, if you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re the type of leader who wants to work with creative and innovative people who embrace problems and challenges, and thrive in those circumstances. That’s the mindset we want to encourage.

The good news is that no one is born with a fixed mindset. In fact, the opposite is true. We are born inquisitive, desperate to learn and develop, and with little fear of failure. A fixed mindset typically results from a number of environmental factors, from parenting to schooling. Because it’s a learned behavior, however, it can be unlearned. Attending thoughtfully and purposefully to any given environment can encourage a growth mindset and work to reverse a learned fixed mindset. In this series, we will be looking at several ways in which we can help facilitate a growth mindset in our businesses, and we’ll begin by looking at one of the most powerful areas we can influence: the fear of failure.

The Fear of Failure

A fixed mindset leads to a variety of consequences, but one of the most pronounced is the tendency for those with this mentality to view any failure as a boundary marker to their intellectual aptitude. For example, having done poorly on a task that pushes the limits of their abilities, a person with a fixed mindset thinks, “Well, I’m obviously not good at that,” and ceases to try and move forward with that project, idea, or problem. Their main goal is to move as fast as possible away from any failure and the situation that caused it. And they tend to work hard to avoid the area in the future. Because someone with a fixed mindset is ultimately outcome focused, not process oriented, failure represents a complete waste of time (theirs and their employer’s). And, because they view failure as an indicator of their limitations, these people tend to avoid taking risks, which is not good for companies looking to innovate and create.

Experiencing the same situation, someone with a growth mindset would think, “Well, although I didn’t do well at that project this time around, I know I can improve with more effort and further understanding.” As a result, they throw themselves diligently into trying to understand the cause of the failure and what they can learn from the process in order to grow in this area. In the first example, however, the individual’s mental position on their inability to improve pointedly impairs any chance of further success and development that area. The result, Dweck points out, is that “fixed mindset makes people into nonlearners.” Think on that. Individuals with a fixed mindset ultimately render themselves unteachable—not a desirable attribute in the business world.

So, how do we set about creating an environment that encourages people to not only risk failure but to remain positive and growth-oriented in the process? We encourage them to fail.

Granting Permission to Fail

We must grant those whom we lead permission to fail. Not fail as in catastrophic, financially irresponsible, reputational soiling flops (remember McDonald’s Arch Deluxe?). No, what we want to offer here is permission to take responsible risks, but ones that don’t absolutely guarantee a successful outcome. Taking calculated, thoughtful risks pushes us beyond the boundaries of our abilities and skill sets. And when we do that, we will at some point fail. But that’s the point, says David Kelley, IDEO partner, Stanford founder, and author of Creative Confidence (2014). He sees failure as an inevitable and even necessary effect of the developmental process. “We believe the lessons learned through failures may make us smarter—even stronger,” he says. “If you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.” As Dweck puts it, “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.” To sum up, if you want to get better, you need to fail at times. Constant success would indicate you are not pushing yourself hard enough and not pursuing new horizons.

As a teacher at Stanford, I reserved my strongest letters of recommendation not for those students who did the best in my classes, but for those whom I witnessed persevere through the struggles often associated with the difficulties of learning the set of new, high-level skills taught in my courses. In my view, how a high performing student reacted when they failed to get something right the first time proved to be the greatest indicator of their success in any future endeavors. Many years ago, when I left for my doctoral program at Indiana University (one of the top in the nation in my field) my undergraduate advisor, Dr. William Burling, offered me this advice: “You won’t stand out because you’re smart. Everyone around you will be smart. You’ll stand out because you persevere, because you will handle the challenges well and learn from them.” His encouragement became my mantra in grad school and helped me look at each obstacle as a learning opportunity, and I continue to apply that philosophy in my life to this day. Which kind of mindset would you rather work with as a leader? One that sees challenges as something to be avoided or one that sees them as an opportunity to grow?

To create an environment that encourages a growth mindset when it comes to fear of failure, however, you must do more than give verbal permission to your employees to fail. It’s one thing to tell someone that it’s OK fail, it’s another thing to convince them that you mean it. So, here are a just a few tips to help you assure them that you’re serious:

  • Set aside some specific time to thoughtfully explain why being open to learning from failure is important to personal and corporate development and progression.

  • Provide some concrete rewards for thoughtful failures when they occur. Do this especially when you see someone pushing themselves beyond the boundaries of their comfort zones and skill sets.

  • Proactively plan for failure. Set up, in advance, a standard reflective practice for analyzing what can be learned from any and all failures. This kind of planning in advance will show your employees that you fully expect there to be failures and welcome them as a developmental tool.

  • Educate your employees on how to take risks with purpose and with respect to the scope of your business. The Arch Deluxe may have failed, but it wasn’t the only egg in McDonald’s basket. Despite being the most costly failure in their history, they have obviously continued to do well. Peter Sims’ book: Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries provides some strategies on how to smartly minimize the consequences of failure while maximizing the discovery process that can result from them.

  • Practice what you preach. Leaders should not expect their employees to do what they will not do themselves. Talk to them about some of your own risks and failures and what you learned from them, and don’t just talk about things in the past. Current examples will prove more powerful here.

We’ll continue to explore other causes and effects of a fixed mindset over the next 30 days in the remaining two parts of this series, along with more practical solutions for creating an environment that encourages a growth mindset. Until then, go out and fail at something—you might just learn a thing or two.

Rod C. Taylor, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of Performance Learning Concepts, a development and training company, and a fellow at the d. school in Paris France. He is an award-winning educator, scholar, author, keynote speaker, and professional musician who has been active in teaching, writing, technology, and music for over twenty years. Through PLC, he offers energetic, interactive training and development programs on communication, leadership, creativity and innovation, and the arts, and his dynamic form of teaching actively engages participants in the learning process. PLC’s clients include large-scale businesses like Nissan North American, Deloitte Global, and DCI-Artform, as well as universities like Stanford, Lispcomb University Graduate School of Business, and Colorado State University. Before founding PLC, Rod taught at Stanford, Indiana University, and the Honors College at Tennessee State University. He currently lives in Nashville, TN. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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