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Fixed mindset vs growth mindset: growing your L&D in 2021

To help make 2021 a year of growth and continue our focus on Making L&D Sustainable, we’ll compare fixed mindsets and growth mindsets, before analysing how to apply a growth mindset to L&D.  Let’s get growing!
Dom Murray
2021-01-20

We’re always striving for growth. Whether it’s a bigger house, a bigger bank account, or bigger muscles, more is usually considered merrier. However, with this constant quest for self-improvement and a bigger bottom line, one important factor can get lost in the shuffle: mindset. You may be gaining knowledge, but are you truly growing? 

We’ve discussed mindset a lot in recent blogs, and with good reason. It is fundamental to everything we are trying to achieve — both as L&D professionals and as human beings. This is especially true when it feels like everything is in flux; from strategy to skill requirements to working arrangements. How do you continue to thrive when it’s impossible to predict what tomorrow will look like? By adopting a growth mindset. 

In 2021, being fixed in your ways and resistant to change will get L&D teams nowhere. Adopting a growth mindset, on the other hand, opens up a world of possibilities. 

So, to help make 2021 a year of growth and continue our focus on Making L&D Sustainable, we’ll compare fixed mindsets and growth mindsets, before analysing how to apply a growth mindset to L&D. 

Let’s get growing! 

What is a fixed mindset? 

Stanford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck pioneered the concept of fixed and growth mindsets. According to Mindset Works, Dr Dweck’s research was borne out of an interest in students' attitudes towards failure. She had noticed that some students grow from failure, while others seemed “devastated” by even slight setbacks, leading her to coin the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset.

At its core, Dr Dweck defines a fixed mindset as people who believe “their qualities are carved in stone.” That is, people are born with inherent abilities or proficiencies that are largely fixed — you either have it or you don’t. 

Dr Dweck expands on this definition, explaining, “in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success — without effort.”

For example, someone with a fixed mindset might believe that they are a natural-born musician, or, conversely, that they have no musical aptitude whatsoever. Accordingly, those who subscribe to a fixed mindset are less likely to put in the effort required to nurture or develop their abilities, as they believe they are inherent. 

Dr Dweck adds that those with a fixed mindset are more compelled to prove themselves, noting, “if you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.” 

While it would be easy to dismiss a fixed mindset out of hand, most of us can probably relate to this on some level. Whether you’re attempting a new hobby or learning a new skill at work, it can be all too easy to say “I’m just naturally not suited to this” and give up if things don’t go your way. 

The good news is that this is relatively normal, as most humans operate with both a fixed mindset and a growth mindset depending on the task. Most of us know that hard work and effort will pay off when learning a new skill. However, we also know that no amount of preparation or belief in your ability will help you jump off a cliff and land safely. That particular mindset must remain fixed. 

So, how do you fix a fixed mindset? Growth.

What is a growth mindset? 

In contrast to a fixed mindset, Dr Dweck defines a growth mindset as the belief that your “most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” That is, your knowledge, skills, and proficiencies continually grow and develop as you put effort into seeking new learning opportunities. 

Put simply, a growth mindset relies on learning from your mistakes and putting in time, effort, and perseverance to improve your knowledge and abilities. Those with a growth mindset will generally have a high level of resilience and see failure as a learning opportunity, whereas those with a fixed mindset may become embarrassed or discouraged if they fail at a task. 

For example, someone with a fixed mindset might say “I was born with two left feet, so I can’t dance.” On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset would say “dancing might not come naturally to me, but with hard work and practice I’ll be able to improve.” 

It’s also important to emphasise that “Dweck does not deny that people differ in their natural abilities, but she stresses that it is continued effort that makes abilities grow”, according to Training Industry.   

Fixed mindset vs growth mindset

Dr Dweck summarises the difference between these two mindsets, saying a growth mindset “creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.” She adds that “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”

To put it another way, a fixed mindset views intelligence as relatively permanent with little room for improvement, whereas a growth mindset views intelligence as changeable with significant opportunities for improvement. 

Another core difference between fixed and growth mindsets is fear of failure vs hunger for success. According to Dr Dweck, people with a growth mindset worry less about seeming smart and instead put more energy into learning. 

In a classroom setting, where much of Dr Dweck’s research took place, this can manifest in many ways. For example, students with a growth mindset may answer a question even when they are unsure, ask a ‘stupid’ question to clarify something they don’t understand, or seek out more difficult problems rather than staying in their comfort zone. 

Dr Dweck quotes a seventh-grade girl who participated in one of her studies, who she believes perfectly encapsulates this difference, saying, “I think intelligence is something you have to work for … it isn’t just given to you.… Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.” 

Mindset misconceptions   

Now that we understand what a growth mindset is, it’s also important to clarify what a growth mindset is not. According to Positive Psychology, Dr Dweck lays out three misconceptions she commonly encounters for growth mindsets. 

Firstly, a growth mindset is not as simple as just being optimistic and practising flexible thinking. A growth mindset is more specific than that, requiring additional effort and follow through. 

Secondly, a growth mindset is not just about praising and rewarding effort. While this is generally a good idea, you should not reward unproductive effort, while learning and progress — not just effort — also require praise. 

Finally, Dr Dweck says that it is not enough to just espouse a growth mindset and assume good things will follow. While espousing a growth mindset is a positive first step, she explains that “the mindset needs to be backed up with effort applied to worthwhile activities, and even then success is not inevitable.” 

Neuroplasticity 101

It’s great to believe that you can learn and grow, however, actually putting this into practice requires a lot of behind the scenes effort from your brain. Enter, neuroplasticity — the foundation of a growth mindset. Our brains are constantly changing. This ability to change and adapt is attributable to neuroplasticity. Without pretending to be a neuroscientist, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to learn from external stimuli, reorganise neural pathways, and adapt in response to our changing requirements over time. Think of it as an ongoing software update for your brain. 

According to Very Well Mind, neuroplasticity relates to the brain’s “remarkable capacity to reorganise pathways, create new connections, and, in some cases, even create new neurons.” 

Or, as Dr Celeste Campbell puts it, “[neuroplasticity] refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganise in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.”

In the context of a growth mindset, this is fundamental. If the brain is capable of constantly learning, growing, adapting, and even creating new pathways and neurons when required, then there is no reason we can’t adopt a growth mindset. As Positive Psychology puts it, “you might say that a growth mindset is simply accepting the idea of neuroplasticity on a broad level.” 

Your brain’s on board, are you? 

Applying a growth mindset to L&D 

Now that you understand what a growth mindset is, what it isn’t, and how it operates on a neuroscientific level, the question becomes how do you apply a growth mindset to L&D? 

#1. Re-evaluate failure

In 2021, change is one of the few constants in L&D, so the first tip to embrace a growth mindset is to re-evaluate your relationship with failure. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but it can make a world of difference. As we’ve discovered, a large aspect of embracing a growth mindset is how you view your failures: are they learning opportunities, or do they make you shy away from attempting other tasks outside of your comfort zone? 

To apply a growth mindset to L&D, it’s critical to embrace your failures just as much as your successes, reminding yourself that they are opportunities to grow. Who knows, you may even come to look forward to failures, viewing them as just another learning opportunity. 

#2. Get in touch with your inner voice

Another excellent strategy for embracing a growth mindset is getting in touch with your inner voice. Often, we are stuck in a fixed mindset without even realising it. That little, nagging voice in the back of your head tells you not to try something because you will look stupid, or says you shouldn’t do something because you’re not gifted and you will just fail. This feeling may be so ingrained that it is simply accepted as fact. 

To fully embrace a growth mindset, it is important to get in touch with this inner voice and challenge its underlying assumptions. Positive Psychology provides a helpful script to challenge these negative thoughts: 

“It may say, ‘Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have what it takes.’

You can respond, ‘I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to do it with time and effort.’

If it says, ‘What if you fail—you’ll be a failure!’, respond with ‘Most successful people had failures along the way.’” 

#3. Ask more questions

Asking more questions is also a simple, positive way to snap out of a fixed mindset. For instance, if your boss gives you some criticism on a performance review, instead of beating yourself up about it, have the courage to ask “what can I do better next time?” 

Likewise, if you are struggling to pick up a new skill, instead of giving up at the first hurdle, go out of your way to ask a colleague for help. While this may seem like a small step, a few questions can go a long way to cultivating a growth mindset. 

Remember, there are no stupid questions, only opportunities to grow your knowledge. 

#4. Praise effort, not ability

Finally, Dr Dweck found that different styles of praise or positive reinforcement have a huge impact on fixed and growth mindsets. As part of her research, Dweck gave students ten questions as part of a nonverbal IQ test. 

Following this, she offered the students two different types of praise. According to Brain Pickings, “Some students were told ‘Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this,’ while others were told, ‘Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

In other words, some were praised for their inherent ability, while others were praised for their effort.

Unsurprisingly, those who were given ‘ability praise’ adopted a fixed mindset, with Dr Dweck noticing “when we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.”

In contrast, 90% of students who received ‘effort praise’ wanted a challenging new task that they could learn from. 

Dr Dweck also found that effort-praised students were more likely to enjoy a follow-up round of harder questions, while their scores were also more likely to improve as questions got harder. 

On the other hand, ability-praised students no longer enjoyed the more difficult questions, viewing failure as a deficiency in their intelligence. They were also more likely to lie in private follow-up letters to their peers, with 40% inflating their scores to make themselves look more successful. According to Dr Dweck, this is because “in the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away.” 

This is a poignant lesson for any L&D team that wants to implement a growth mindset in 2021. If you’re looking for a teamwide resolution this year, look no further than praising effort over inherent ability to bear long-term results. 

For more tips on implementing a growth mindset in your daily life, be sure to check out our blog How to develop a growth mindset for learning

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