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Growth Mindset – Fostering a Learning Culture Beyond Lip Service

Growth mindset is having a moment. In fact, it’s having several moments. Carol Dweck’s seminal work, which has long advocated for individuals to believe in the elasticity of their brains and their ability to develop new skills, has found its way from academia to the corporate world, and it shows no signs of weakening. And for good reason—the idea that individuals can grow and learn makes any learning and development advocate happy. What’s more, the belief, furthered by the growth mindset theory, that failures and setbacks are learning opportunities, makes those same advocates nearly giddy. Beyond learning and development professionals, the C-suite has also gotten on board.

It’s easy to support growth mindset at the senior levels when you limit that support to verbal endorsement. The concept is logical, positive, and helpful.   How, as a senior leader, could you not endorse the notion of an organization where your people can learn, grow, and, ultimately innovate?

It’s an entirely different thing, however, to champion an environment, and take the corresponding actions, to demonstrate support for “fail but learn.” BlessingWhite, a division of GP Strategies, conducted a survey for their Mindset to Skillset research. The leaders we surveyed repeatedly expressed skepticism, and reflected the skepticism of those they lead, that their executives are truly behind what’s required to establish a growth oriented environment.  Put simply, in the words of one respondent, “It is extremely difficult for a leader to demonstrate and implement a growth mindset if senior leadership and company culture doesn’t foster and reward this type of leadership.”

We’ve put our leaders in an impossible situation—asking them to believe in the “fail fast and learn fast” concept, but then backing that up with hiring practices, performance management systems, and compensation plans that reward accomplishment and punish failure. Our leaders struggle to take the actions that correlate with a growth-oriented leadership approach, thereby preventing a learning culture to flourish. A vicious cycle that reinforces a fixed mindset, one in which leaders and individuals stick to what they know, becomes increasingly entrenched.

Our research highlighted several big challenges to growth mindset, including:

  • Lack of time – Leaders indicate they can’t coach for growth because they simply need to deliver results. Stopping and finding teachable moments has the potential to compromise deadlines and deliverables, and these leaders, and their people, are unwilling to fail. “Cultivating skills and behaviors, in oneself and in others, requires time to learn, to practice, to reflect, and to question. The biggest challenge for me is balancing the need to deliver increasingly complicated deliverables in increasingly shorter time with the investment in time required to cultivate growth.”
  • Risk adversity – Because failure isn’t perceived as a step to learning, but rather a non-desirable outcome, leaders and their teams are unwilling to take risks and try something new. “Getting the belief that taking a calculated risk is acceptable is a struggle these days. Failure is too often seen as an absolute. It’s not; it’s part of the route to success.”
  • Self-limiting beliefs – Leaders cited their team’s lack of confidence and motivation around their own skills and abilities as a struggle and are unsure how to alter this thinking. Instead of having the performance, career, and coaching conversations required, it’s simply easier for leaders to work with their confident and known “go to” people rather than coach others to success. “Cultivating the same sense in the team members that they can change and grow themselves through a continuous process of learning and development.”

Knowing that these are the challenges in creating this culture, what can senior leaders do to walk the talk?

Share personal stories – Take the opportunity to share authentically your own personal and professional journey – not just your accomplishments, but the places where you failed and learned and how that impacted your growth.

Acknowledge – Appreciate appropriate risk-taking within your organization. Recognize not just those who succeeded, but those who tried something new regardless of the outcome. Without risk-taking, innovation is not possible. Recognize, and reward, places where someone stepped out on a limb to try something new.

Talk to your frontline and mid-level leaders – Find out what your leaders need to help themselves cultivate a growth mindset and learn the skills necessary to develop, coach, and inspire others. Coaches and mentors who support leadership development can be excellent advocates to prompt self-reflection and push leaders out of their fixed mindset comfort zone.

Consider your culture – Consider what culture you are fostering at all levels of the organization. Is the message that you are sending from the top, sounding and feeling the same as it trickles out and down to others? What is the character and personality of your organization, and what can change in order for a learning culture to be supported both in words and actions?

A growth mindset isn’t something you accomplish or achieve and then you are done. It’s also not something you declare and it happens. It takes practice; it takes encouragement. By definition it is a process—a process of trying new things, pushing the boundaries of what you think is possible, and then learning from that outcome, good or bad, to help you to grow and get better with your next effort. If learning professionals and senior executives are earnest in their desire for growth, they will engage in that process—through not only their words, but also their actions—demonstrating a true commitment to a culture of learning.

About the Authors

Leah Clark
Leah Clark is a leadership development professional with over 28 years of experience in her field. She has a unique perspective on the mindsets and skillset that are critical to leadership success and brings that perspective to her coaching and consulting. Leah’s clients benefit from her collaborative approach to crafting a well-connected and thoughtful leadership development strategy. Her company, LeaderConnect, makes meaningful connections for leaders and leadership development professionals around the issues that matter most.

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