Fixed or growth mindset?
Employee engagement is a critical factor to maintaining a productive workforce. Given its importance, organisations continuously try to identify ways to understand and increase engagement. One such mechanism that has gained coverage in recent times is the concept of ‘mindsets’.
‘Mindsets are the implicit theories or assumptions that people hold about the plasticity of their abilities’ (Keating and Heslin, 2015). It is generally argued that people fall into one of two mindsets: fixed or growth, respectively.
Renowned psychologist Carol Dweck describes a fixed mindset as the assumption that ability is a fixed entity and cannot be changed, i.e. ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. In contrast, a growth mindset assumes that abilities are flexible and can be reshaped and developed through focused effort, i.e. ‘talents are developed, not discovered’ (Dweck, 2006)
What does this mean for organisations?
Research has shown that organisational culture can have an impact on mindsets. More precisely that working in an environment which endorses a fixed view of intelligence (culture of genius) or a malleable view of intelligence (culture of growth) effects employee engagement. A primary difference between the two – in instances of fixed cultures, an employee is normally hired based on a specific skill set they currently possess. In contrast, while still possessing some necessary skills, in growth cultures an employee is generally built rather than bought; through a process of continued learning and development.
What does this mean for employees?
In cases where employees hold a fixed mindset, there is an inclination to avoid challenges that might expose any perceived deficiency in ability. In addition, attempts at positive and constructive feedback are largely ignored. However, employees with a growth mindset embrace and actively seek challenges; seeing setbacks as a chance to learn and develop rather than a shortcoming in ability. Feedback is generally sought and considered.
How can a growth mindset be cultivated?
There are several practical ways to shape a growth mindset in any organisation:
- When it comes to promotion and selection decisions, give consideration to employees whose performance capability might be most developed by assuming a challenging new role for which they do not yet have all the required competencies (Keating and Heslin, 2015)
- Focus on the process an employee took to attain a positive outcome rather than the perceived talent that enabled them to achieve it (ibid.)
- Avoid the use of terms such as ‘star performer’ or ‘gifted’ as doing so may cause an employee to adopt a fixed mindset and avoid challenges in order to preserve this perceived title (Michaels, Handfield-Jones and Axelrod, 2001)
On an individual level, Reid (2017) suggests a simple method of engaging a growth mindset. Use the word ‘yet’, i.e. ‘I have not fully learned how to use the database yet’ rather than ‘I can’t use the database’ and replacing the word ‘failing’ with ‘learning’.
In a world where many people fear failure, it could be argued that not many fear learning!
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindsets. New York: Random House
Keating, L. and Heslin, P.A. (2015) ‘The potential role of mindsets in unleashing employee engagement’, Human Resource Management Review, 25, pp. 329-341
Michaels, E., Handfield-Jones, H. and Axelrod, B. (2001) The war for talent. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Press
Reid, R. (2017) Reeling from a failure? Perhaps an attitude change could help. Available here
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Ronan has worked in the role of Assistant Librarian with the Irish Management Institute since 2011. During this time, he has completed both the IMI Diploma in Management and IMI Diploma in Marketing and Digital Strategy. Of particular interest are the subjects of motivation, engagement and marketing.