What Exactly Is a Growth Mindset, Anyway?


Maybe you read about it in an article one day or heard about it on a podcast. Or maybe your co-worker has talked about it around the office, and you just keep pretending you understand. In any case, let’s make one thing clear: Anyone can understand and benefit from a growth mindset.

As the NeuroLeadership Institute defines it, growth mindset is the belief that skills can be improved over time rather than being something we’re born “good” or “bad” at. You may never be the best at something, but with a growth mindset, you know you can get better. Not only that, a growth mindset compels you to focus on improving — not proving — yourself to face all future challenges.

What’s a growth mindset good for?

In everyday life, you’re bound to butt up against any number of skills-based challenges. At home, you may consider yourself utterly useless in the kitchen or all too adept at shrinking your favorite garments. You might resent your lack of time management, personal finance savvy, or fear of heights. At work, the idea of leading meetings might send you into a cold sweat.

Growth mindset works in all these cases. Granted, it won’t necessarily cure you of the anxiety or apprehension that runs underneath these activities. But it will change how you relate to these weaker spots, and it’s that shift that unlocks your ability to perform. You stop comparing yourself to others and instead start focusing on one-upping your past self.

The transformational power of growth mindset

NLI’s research around growth mindset shows it affords organizations enormous benefits. One global pharmaceutical company saw a 14% jump in employee engagement since beginning its growth-mindset journey. Two years after launching its own growth-mindset initiative, HP Inc. saw a 22% jump in employee engagement.

The reason for these gains is simple: Teams that can cultivate a growth-mindset culture don’t think the way other teams do. Rather than having a fixed mindset and seeing challenges as threats, employees in a growth-mindset culture see challenges as opportunities. They leap at the chance to tackle a new problem. Sure, they may fail. But remember: The point of a growth mindset isn’t to be the best — it’s to get better. As long as teams can learn from failure and do better next time, they can consider a failed venture a success.

Finding a balance with growth mindset

NLI’s research shows that many companies misunderstand — and misuse — the idea of growth mindset. Often, leaders fit the meaning to match their goals. In some companies, for example, managers criticize their employees for not exhibiting a growth mindset when the employees say their workloads are full. Growth mindset does not mean having infinite time or mental resources. The brain most certainly has a finite capacity.

Growth mindset can be especially useful in daily conversations and check-ins. Managers who listen carefully when talking to their direct reports may notice self-defeating or fixed-mindset language. This includes phrases like “I’m bad at …” or “I can’t …” A growth-mindset approach would turn those sentiments into phrases such as, “I currently struggle with …” and “I can’t … yet.”

These small tweaks lead to profound changes, especially when entire organizations put them to use. As you start to adopt these phrases in your own work, you may still struggle day to day. But eventually you’ll find the tasks that once produced extreme stress and anxiety are your greatest opportunities for growth. Even if you aren’t the best, you’ll have gotten better. And that’s what really counts.

Author: Chris Weller

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