We also recommend reading Part 1 of The Growth Mindset Workplace series.
My freshman year in college, I was required to take an entrance exam to determine my placement in math and English courses. The results confirmed my long held belief that I was smart in English and dumb in math. How dumb, you ask? Well, let’s just say that the class they stuck me in started out with a review of fractions. Seriously, fractions.
Since the 5th grade, I had struggled in my math classes—all while doing fairly well in my English, history, and science classes—and those facts convinced me that I was dumb in math. That freshmen experience, however, provided me with a wakeup call on the subject. I remember sitting in that remedial class, thinking, “How can I be smart in these other subjects but dumb in math?” The answer came to me through a deliberate process of reflection that semester: I was as “smart” in math as in any other subject. Through a traceable series of events that started in 5th grade, however, I had adopted a fixed mindset toward this subject, while adopting a growth mindset toward the others. This environmentally constructed mentality not only impeded my progress in mathematics, but by the time I reached college it was starting to bleed over into any class connected to this field of study.
A Partial Growth Mindset
I suspect that many of us can relate in some way to the above experience, at least in general. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m just not good at (fill in the subject matter of your choice here),” or “I’m just not creative,” or “I’m not good with abstract ideas,” or “I’m great in STEM fields but lousy in the humanities.” This tendency occurs when people talk about personality, too: “I’m an introvert, so I could never do that,” or “I’m just not good in front of a crowd,” and the list goes on.
Each of the above statements represents a subtler adoption of that fixed mindset we discussed in Part I of this series. Additionally, as the above example suggests, a person can have a fixed mindset in one area of their life and a growth mindset in another. As such, they are teachable in some subjects and not in others. To use my own example, as a freshman I was happy to entertain new explorations in fields related to the humanities but didn’t see the point of further instruction in those connected to math. At the time, I thought it would have been a waste of time. And, while it’s great that at least I had adopted a growth mindset in some areas of my life, I was still limiting my potential by adopting a fixed mindset toward this subject and viewing myself as naturally and irreversibly deficient in it. To reach my full potential, I was going to need to reverse that fixed mindset.
To recap, a person with a fixed mindset believes that intellect (along with personality traits) are genetically determined, unchangeable, inherited characteristics, while someone with a growth mindset sees these same traits as attributes that can be developed, strengthened, and expanded over time. While a partial growth mindset is better than a fixed one, it is not without its consequences, especially in a work environment where innovation and creativity are desired. For Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a brief look at some of those consequences, as well as how leaders can begin to create an environment that encourages those with only a partial growth mindset to expand it into all aspects of their personal and professional life.
Environmental Determinants for Career Paths
In her book on fixed and growth mindsets, Carol Dweck argues that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” That proved true in my case with math, and I have no doubt that I initially chose a major in the humanities (avoiding a STEM focus) because I thought I didn’t have a natural ability to succeed in mathematics. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I decided to reflect on my experience with mathematics, I discovered a series of environmental events that directly affected my proficiency and self-perception regarding the subject. I offer my own example as a case study of how, through reflection, we can uncover more accurate reasons as to why we struggle in some areas. Here is what I discovered, at least in part:
Starting in 5rd grade, I switched schools 6 times, sometimes in the middle of the year. Each school approached math education differently, and each switch led to more confusion.
That confusion started in my 5th grade class, and I constantly struggled with my math homework that year. Since I didn’t do well on my homework, I didn’t do well on my tests. Since I didn’t do well on my tests, I didn’t like math. Makes sense, right?
At home, my parents encouraged my literary and art interests, but not offered no encouragement toward mathematics.
In 9th grade, I developed an intense dislike for my math teacher (the feeling was mutual). He thought I was lazy, and I thought he didn’t explain things well. He would often call me to the board to do problems, which I hated. As a result, I dreaded attending math class all year long.
In 10th grade, I had another bad classroom experience and decided that math classes were always boring, taught by bad teachers, and full of irrelevant content. I hardly ever did my homework and just accepted that my math grades were going to be bad.
By my senior year, I opted not to take a math course at all (even though I was planning on attending college).
Reflecting on my personal history that freshman year, I connected the dots and discovered why I hated math and—more importantly—why I didn’t excel at it. I had some bad experiences, got confused, and stopped trying. Armed with a new resolve, new discipline, and a new teacher (who was amazing), I set out to give math another try. I nailed it. I got an “A” in the class, and over the next two years in college went on to earn A’s in college algebra, statistics, testing and measurement, and experimental psychology (all math focused). And I enjoyed it all.
This personal story does not end with me switching to a STEM field major, though. I continued my studies in English, education, and psychology as an undergraduate, and literature, rhetoric, and philosophy as a grad student (I did marry an engineer, though, so there’s that). No, this rejection of a fixed mindset did not lead to an all-out conversion to math-related fields, but it did result in numerous consequences that continue to positively affect my professional life.
The moment I realized that I could be just as good in math-related fields as I could in art-related ones, I became more open to the influence, benefit, and contributions each had to offer the other. I read and became influenced by C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, which argues that the western divide between the sciences and humanities hinders our ability to solve problems. I began to engage my STEM friends in discussions about their fields, like Game Theory, looking for overlapping areas of interest. As professor in the humanities, I attended research presentations and read essays in fields seemingly disconnected from my own, like mechanical engineering, product design, and design thinking. As a result, partnerships, collaborations, friendships, new skill sets, and new opportunities developed that wouldn’t have otherwise, and my professional and personal lives have only been enriched by them.
A 360° Growth Mindset
It’s important to know that adopting what I would call a 360° growth mindset does not mean that we seek to be experts in everything. That wouldn’t be practical. Most companies need employees to specialize and to remain committed to further development in their specific areas of expertise. A civil engineer need not know everything that an architect knows any more than a computer coder should understand all the theories behind product design. At the same time, however, if each of these experts adopts a growth mindset in every aspect of their professional life (and not just in their specific fields), they will remain open to learning more in areas that exists outside their expertise. This approach has the obvious advantage of expanding an individual’s knowledge base and skill sets, but in the workplace the benefits extend further. Adopting a 360° growth mindset leads to more empathy and appreciation among coworkers, better interdisciplinary connections on projects, and better problem-solving experiences among teams. And that’s just the beginning. I’m sure you can imagine other benefits as well.
Practical Steps for Leaders
So, let’s look at some practical steps leaders can take to create a place that encourages employees to embrace a growth mindset in every aspect of their lives.
As with the concept of an overall fixed mindset, set aside some time to thoughtfully explain the concept of a partially fixed mindset and its consequences.
Lead employees in a reflective exercise (in person or via writing) that asks them to consider how they came about to specialize in their fields.
Have employees create a personal history (like the one above) that traces the environmental factors they believe impacted their career choices. Encourage them to share their findings in a small group, reflecting on how a different environment could have led to different choices. This kind of exercise reminds us that environment more than biology often determines our success in any given field.
Have employees enroll in a training and development program centered on an area where they have a fixed mindset. Keep it low stakes, allowing them to approach it with an openness to improvement without fear of failure (see Part 1).
If your company participates in personality type tests (such as the Myers-Briggs), make clear that the results are descriptive, not prescriptive. We can each improve in the areas that are not our strengths.
Again, practice what you preach. Demonstrate your own 360° growth mindset by visibly continuing your own growth in an area outside you known expertise. Talk candidly about your own struggles and successes with the experience.
As in Part 1 of this series, the above suggestions involve leaders orchestrating some focused training and development activities. As we all know, however, employees don’t always see professional development programs as helpful or meaningful. To that end, in the final part of this series, we will look more closely at establishing training and development programs that encourage a growth mindset, lead to sustained motivation, and inspire further independent development. In the meantime, make a point to try something in an area you wrote off a long time ago. Who knows, you might just like it.
Rod C. Taylor, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of Performance Learning Concepts, a development and training company, and a d.school 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.