Why Growth Mindset is the Key to Building Back Better


Whatever you believe about the role of government in day-to-day life, we can all agree that the public sector needs to adapt faster to changes such as shifting demographics, advancing technology, or a sudden global pandemic. Simply put, our public institutions need to move faster.

There’s an important body of research that can help. It rests on a concept of a “Growth Mindset,” which has nothing to do with growing government, but with a subtle shift in how we approach tasks that has an unexpectedly large impact on our ability to do just about everything.

Growth mindset is the belief that one’s skills and abilities can be improved. People with a growth mindset regard ongoing learning as one of the goals of any activity. They focus on improving themselves, rather than proving themselves, and see mistakes as opportunities to get better, rather than as signs of incompetence. They set stretch goals, seek out feedback, and actively learn from others.

In teams and institutions with a growth mindset culture, leaders and employees alike emphasize sustained progress as opposed to flawless performance. They uplift one another, welcome new ideas, and strive to get better. All of this emerges from a foundational belief one has about any task, which is that it is possible to get better. It’s the difference between saying, “I can learn to cook if I try hard enough,” and saying, “I am not innately a good cook, so there’s no point in trying.”

At the Neuroleadership Institute, we’ve been researching the application of Growth Mindset in large organizations since 2016, and we’ve helped hundreds of leading institutions build this capability.

Adopting a growth mindset is not a panacea, but it can help us face them with more agility, creativity, and resilience. Here are some of the ways this idea is relevant to government today.

Digital transformation

The most common reason leaders want to adopt a growth mindset, according to an NLI survey, is digital transformation. Digital transformation requires a whole different way of thinking, a level of flexibility and openness that is unique compared to other kinds of organizational changes.

With digital transformation, big, paradigm-shifting changes happen overnight. Think of how Uber didn’t just make it easier to find a taxi, they reimagined and reconstructed the whole process. In much the same way, many governments are under pressure to reinvent how the public interacts with their services. In many government organizations, there are tremendous efforts already underway.

This kind of change requires everyone in an organization to let go of the past, look fresh at their ecosystem, do experiments, and rapidly learn and iterate. These skills are at the heart of growth mindset: get better, rather than trying to look good.

Greater employee value proposition and retention

Organizations that effectively deliver on their employee value proposition—the perceived value employees gain by working in an organization—can decrease annual employee turnover by just under 70% and increase new hire commitment by nearly 30%.

The federal government employs 2.1 million employees—many of whom are deeply motivated by their work and driven by their mission. Many of them manage large, important, complex organizations with huge budgets. For decades, government turnover has been low given the relative stability and robust benefits of a career in the public sector.

But research has shown that turnover among government employees is steadily ticking upwards. Cultivating a growth mindset culture can improve commitment and stem staff churn. That’s because feeling you’re learning is one of the highest drivers of employee engagement.

While the public sector may not be able to compete on salaries or bonuses, they have the opportunity to out-culture the private sector by creating workplaces where people learn faster, have more opportunities to grow and develop, and are provided with more helpful and regular feedback.

To help us all build a better normal

The pandemic has demonstrated that the work the government does for the public is critical. Accordingly, the public is expecting that organizations of all types will do better at serving them. Research suggests that when there is a lot of change going on, people are most open to big changes. Also, many of the ways we interact in the world have been “unfrozen,” in ways that haven’t occurred for a 100 years.

Put all this together, and you see why this is a crisis we definitely don’t want to waste. At NLI, we have been talking since June 2020 about building a better normal. Not just a new normal, but a better normal where we leapfrog perhaps a decade of slow development and make big changes in a year or two in how governments function.

Adopting a growth mindset in the public sector can help tremendously with this urgent mission. A culture of development, not a culture of genius. A mindset where we dwell less on shortcomings and instead imagine new possibilities. A mindset where we are more inclusive of people from different backgrounds and experiences.

In short, for governments to speed up, it’s time to care about growth—not growth in the size of government, but in the mindset with which we approach our tasks. Now really is the time to build back better, and a growth mindset can help us do it.

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in ATD.


Author: Dr. David Rock