The hidden value of a growth-mindset

Welcome to the first post of my new leadership blog. I hope to add entries as often as every two weeks. Each entry will focus primarily on research findings that relate to leadership in a wide array of areas.

Entry #1: The hidden value of a growth-mindset:

I have long been enthralled by Carol Dweck’s research. Carol is a developmental psychologist at Stanford. Her work with kids is fascinating, important, and practical. Some of her research, for instance, indicates that, when your children do well at school, you should not compliment them on their intelligence, e.g., “Wow. You must be so smart!” This can lead them to think that they are so talented that they can rest on their laurels and still succeed. Instead, it pays to say, “Wow. You must have really worked hard!” Then they will be more likely to attribute their success to hard work and, when they face future challenges, it becomes more likely that they will crank up their efforts to succeed – just what we want our kids to do.

A corollary of this research has identified two ways that people look at intelligence – as if it is fixed or as if it can grow. People with a fixed-mindset don’t believe that learning and effort can change a person’s intelligence; people with a growth-mindset do.

This becomes particularly important because how people view intelligence can influence how they approach many important aspects of life. Fixed-mindset people tend to focus on performance goals and demonstrating their abilities; when they face challenges, they question their ability, exert less effort, and often become defensive. Growth-mindset people, in contrast, tend to focus on learning goals and developing their ability; when they face challenges, they respond by persisting and trying to discover new ways to solve their problems. Do Nothing! summarizes these ideas, as well as Carol’s conclusion that organizations with fixed-mindsets can be pretty de-motivating.

Her recent research with Mary Murphy takes these ideas even further. “A culture of genius: How an organization’s lay theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior” (in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, volume 36, 2010, pages 283-296) shows that people can be seriously influenced by the culture of their organization, and that this influence can have long-term effects on their behavior.

Here is what they did in their research: First, they created a story about two prestigious tutoring clubs; they made the clubs seem so attractive that their respondents could easily imagine wanting to join them. They described the clubs as believing that people’s intelligence was either fixed or could grow. Then, in their first experiment, they asked their respondents which of a list of 14 attributes they would want to present to the club’s members in their application to become a member; in their second experiment, respondents could list any attribute they wished – they didn’t have to choose from a list. In both cases, people tended to choose attributes that reflected their motivation more than their intelligence. But their critical finding was that their respondents also tended to present their motivational attributes to gain membership in the growth-mindset club but their ‘smarts’ to gain membership in the fixed-mindset club. Thus, people self-present themselves in ways that might make them attractive, i.e., they were sensibly strategic.

Their next two studies went much farther, indicating that people who were randomly assigned to merely anticipate making an application to one of the clubs reported that they themselves had characteristics that were closely related to the club that they were thinking of joining.

This is mind-boggling (almost): people change how they think of themselves as a function of the groups they hope to join? In fact, a long history of research shows that we all have multiple selves – we carry different personas that we activate whenever they are appropriate. Thus, when we host a party, we are more gregarious – acting like an extrovert – when our guests’ conviviality seems to be disappearing but we stay more in the background – acting like an introvert – when the party is lively. In the case of their research, because fixed- and growth-mindsets are both plausible, people naturally adopt one mindset or the other to help them fit in to a potentially new group. But the results say much more than that – not only do we adapt, but we also seem to change how we think about ourselves as a function of the context.

In addition, in their last study, Murphy and Dweck showed that, after being selected as a new member in a fixed-mindset club, 78% of their respondents, a half hour later facing an entirely different task, indicated that they would hire a job candidate who highlighted her smarts while 92% of the respondents who were selected as a new member in a growth-mindset club indicated that they would hire a job candidate who highlighted her motivation. Thus, their earlier experience in being admitted into a club had a huge impact on how they acted, in an independent context, a half hour later.

Although these were laboratory experiments with undergraduates, the results suggest that people are highly influenced by their immediate environments and, even when a new set of demands arise, they can still be heavily influenced by an approach to life that has just been rewarded.

The message for leaders from this research is clear: how we act can depend on our job environment and whether it promotes a fixed- or a growth-mindset. Why do organizations reflect their leaders so much? Might entire organizations evolve around one mindset? It’s no wonder that organizational cultures vary so much, in so many ways. These findings also beg an adaptive question: how, when, and why would a fixed-mindset culture ever survive?



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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

“Do Nothing! will stand out as among the most imaginative, fun, and useful leadership books ever published. Murnighan uses rigorous research to provide detailed advice that will help leaders do their jobs better, develop more adept and committed followers, and to suffer from less stress and overwork. Even though most business books present new wine in old bottles, Do Nothing! is the rare book that provides a refreshing perspective and tangible advice that isn’t available anyplace else.”

Robert I. Sutton, Author of THE NO ASSHOLE RULE: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

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