Infect or inspire? How mindset is the catalyst for change

Leaders in business today need to know how to work effectively in an ever-changing and global environment, where they will encounter many different circumstances, cultures and types of people.

A key to succeeding at this lies in encouraging and cultivating a growth mindset.

The good news is that, as our recent research has shown, efforts to develop a growth mindset can bear both short- and long-term fruit, not only for business leaders as individuals but for the organisations in which they work. A growth mindset helps people and businesses to navigate and adapt to change and uncertainty. It also enables people to better listen, learn, lead and find effective solutions to challenges.

“It appears that this way of thinking and approach to learning gets embedded into an individual’s psyche and becomes integral to who they are and what they become both personally and professionally,” we write in our research paper “Mindset Matters: Why growth mindset is key to organisational success”. “In sum, individuals with a growth mindset seek growth in themselves, and also help to create a learning culture that encourages growth in others.”

By supporting and encouraging this type of thinking, businesses can reduce the risks of negative beliefs and behaviours that can infect people in the workplace. Fixed mindset thinking, by contrast, leads to distraction and reduced performance, as Dweck (2006) has noted.

“So in the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind,” she writes, describing how such thinking can particularly hurt people in stereotyped groups. “When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it. When people are in a growth mindset, the stereotype doesn’t disrupt their performance. The growth mindset takes the teeth out of the stereotype and makes people better able to fight back. They don’t believe in permanent inferiority. And if they are behind – well, then they’ll work harder and try to catch up.”

Our study looked at a group of Hult International Business School MBA graduates who had completed a programme designed to change behaviour and develop a growth mindset. During semi-structured interviews, participants repeatedly referred back to that course and said it helped them change their thinking, even if they had been predisposed towards a fixed mindset.

One participant reported, “…the most important thing it did is just open up my own eyes introspectively. So understanding what I’m like, well my character is like and how flexible my character is, everybody could change a little or tweak a bit of this or a bit of that, I think it helped me put my character into perspective to understand how I could communicate with the outer world…”

Several years after they had completed the programme, study participants demonstrated many lasting benefits. These included a clear sense of purpose; passion and motivation; greater self-awareness and self-management abilities; an active interest in learning, listening and building relationships; curiosity; and agility. Such characteristics provided them with a greater ability to solve problems, adapt to change and work effectively with a diverse range of colleagues.

For example, one participant said that “the growth mindset, that really, really made a huge difference. I was a person that had an extremely, extremely fixed mindset”. Another reported, “Other people noticing it pointed out how I was different and then I noticed my change… because they’d say, ‘Why, you’re so different.’ and I’d be like, ‘In what way?’ ‘Like you’re actually listening to me instead of interrupting me and telling me what I’m doing wrong. You’re actually listening to me.’”

As we note in our research, the MBA development course was not designed to teach leadership but used elements of intentional change theory (ICT) to develop a growth mindset, self-awareness and plans for strengthening competencies. It did this through both lectures and experiential learning, which helped participants to better understand themselves, what capabilities they valued and which aspects they wanted to change. This understanding is critical for enabling change in one’s self, as Boyatzis (2006) observed. Leaders with such understanding are then able to help effect change in those around them.

“[W]ithout leadership there does not seem to be the emergence of desired, sustainable change,” Boyatzis wrote. “Many of the organizational or small group conditions may have been present for a long time, but when a capable or effective leader appears, magic happens -- or more accurately, ICT happens!”

In addition to self-awareness, leaders who want to develop a growth mindset need a willingness to step outside of their comfort zone, a desire to learn and readiness to reflect on what works and why. And organisations can help cultivate this by watching for people who show adaptability and a willingness to learn. They can also support a learning culture in the workplace and encourage the regular giving and receiving of feedback.

A growth mindset, rather than innate skills and abilities, can help people and businesses be better prepared for whatever the future might bring.

“I hired fresh graduates actually,” one study participant told us. “And it’s basically about the growth mindset; they don’t have any experience in distribution, in marketing, but we could all learn it on the way there. And that’s one of the basic things about growth mindset is that everything can be learnt.”

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