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Growth Mindset matters – 3 reasons why it matters to you

07 August, 2017

Does your organisation have a growth mindset? If you were to ask the person who came up with the concept, Stanford University’s Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck, the answer would probably be… No.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review `What having a growth mindset actually means’, Dweck states that while the term has become something of a buzzword, making its way into countless mission statements, it is widely misunderstood. Dweck goes on to say, “a pure growth mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek”.  Most of us are a combination of growth and fixed mindsets, and learning to identify and question our fixed mindset persona is “hard work”.

To briefly define terms:

  • Fixed mindset – Talent and intelligence are innate and fixed. Some people have natural gifts, others don’t. Experience and IQ should be rewarded, mistakes should be avoided.  
  • Growth mindset –  Talent is not predetermined or static. It can and should be developed in anyone. Smart risk-taking should be encouraged because failure is the route to mastery.  

So given that a genuine growth mindset is hard work to adopt and takes time to absorb into organisational culture, is it worth the effort? Atmosphere have come up with 3 reasons why it is:

  1.     Digital leaders already have a growth mindset

On the morning of 25th June 2015, on the eve of its Windows 10 launch, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella sent out a companywide email. It included one of the most ambitious mission statements in business history:

… to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.”

A gargantuan ambition, to put it mildly. In order to achieve it, Microsoft is deliberately and systematically creating a growth-mindset culture. Part of that process has been to rethink its approach to leadership. Working with a belief that potential is nurtured rather than predetermined, that abilities are transformable through effort, Microsoft’s skilled but previously unidentified leaders have risen to levels that would have been unachievable in a fixed-mindset culture. As Satya Nadella put it in the mission statement:

Leadership is about bringing out the best in people, where everyone is bringing their A game and finding deep meaning in their work. We need to be always learning and insatiably curious. We need to be willing to lean in to uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, recognising failure happens along the way to mastery. And we need to be open to the ideas of others, where the success of others does not diminish our own.”

Microsoft is advancing an organisational ethos in which smart risk-taking is celebrated. Outcomes matter, but in a growth mindset a successful outcome is judged to be one which yields new insights, previously overlooked data points – acumen that drives the organisation forward. Rather than working in a culture that fears failure, employees are rewarded for quick learning through trial and error. The company is in the early stages of growth mindset adoption, learning and evolving as they go, but it is already seeing the benefits in the form of more innovative ideas and products — and employees are developing leadership skills in unexpected places, at every level.

Facebook, famously founded by a bunch of college students, has arguably operated with a growth mindset from the outset. In a 2015 interview How Facebook keeps scaling its culture, Mark Zuckerberg states that potential should never be constrained by what’s already on a person’s CV – the traditional veneration of credential over potential. Zuckerberg’s belief that “you don’t have to have a huge amount of experience to be able to do big things” has allowed the company to attract some of the best people in the industry.

I think it would be pretty backwards, given my own experience, if we didn’t believe that. That’s been helpful in terms of giving really talented folks who haven’t run big things before big roles in the company, and giving them a chance to either show that they can do it, or not.”

By scaling a flexible company ethos – allowing new arrivals to decide which team to work on, encouraging early and frequent experimentation, developing a strong employee referral program – Facebook has managed to grow from a 10-person startup to over 17,000 individuals whilst never becoming bloated or bureaucratic. Every one of those employees owns the organisational culture.   

  1.     It helps to create the learning organisation

Back in 2001, a senior Enron executive was interviewed about the company’s phenomenal and seemingly unstoppable global ascendency.

We hire very smart people and we pay them more than they think they are worth.”

In other words, they did what most modern organisations still do today. They hired the brightest expertise available, identifying this top talent through experience and IQ, then they rewarded it with frequent churn and highly-paid promotion. We all know how that turned out.

Enron is an extreme example of what can go wrong when an organisation buys into the so-called `talent myth’.  Its top tier, celebrated for innate `talent’, defined themselves by that description and when faced with setbacks their self-image was threatened. Rather than advocating for ideas and taking remedial action, admitting mistakes and using them as an opportunity to learn and grow, they simply lied.

Common sense would suggest that celebrating innate talent and intelligence inspires confidence and drives success. And actually, it does – but only when things run smoothly. Those talented individuals with fixed mindsets fear failure, and blame the limits of their abilities when faced with setbacks. People and, indeed, organisations with a growth mindset welcome setbacks with open arms and do not blame anything when they hit failure. They don’t even consider themselves to be failing. Rather, they see setbacks as an information-gathering exercise, an opportunity for new learning to take place.

A growth mindset business encourages new ideas and growth by framing failure as the route to mastery.

What can we learn here? How can this inform future projects? What do we need to change or strengthen? Going back to Facebook,COO Sheryl Sandberg says the organisation’s resilience is born from embracing employees’ failures.

You have to be open to feedback. You have to ask for feedback. You have to build in a culture where, when I think you need to do something better, or you think I need to do something better—we tell each other and tell each other directly, and work it out…”

  1.     It allows you to better identify, attract and retain talent

When companies adopt a growth mindset, they are adopting the belief that talent can be developed in anyone. But if you assume that everyone has potential, how do you identify and nurture that future talent. Equally as important, how do you hold onto it?

Microsoft have not abandoned their traditional talent development model, but they have come up a number of with creative ways to supplement it. One example is an annual hackathon. Any employee can propose an idea, step outside their day job to assemble a team, develop a business plan and prototype, then pitch the idea company-wide. Winning teams are awarded initial funding to take their ideas further.   

Moonshot goals are encouraged, with the understanding that while some of these ambitiously high-risk project ideas are going to hit the moon, others may not. Even when there is a strong likelihood that a project could fail, team members have enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to learn and develop insights that could drive the organisation forward.

Microsoft have also remoulded their traditional talent program with annual Talent Talks. Each year, the CEO and his senior leadership team meet with the heads of each arm of the organisation to discuss moving people up and across teams, brainstorming ideas for augmenting skills and building experiences. These discussions require almost a full week of the CEO’s time, but they lead to a much broader view of up-and-coming talent, unleashing greater potential from literally anywhere in the company. While the growth mindset is already giving every employee the chance to grow, it is also instrumental in attracting new people eager for the same opportunity.

As Professor Carol Dweck says, cultivating a true growth mindset isn’t easy. However, when people are learning from their successes and their failures, when they are continuing to revise, upgrade and improve their processes, then there is only one possible outcome. The results will get better and better.

Contact us and ask our experts how to adopt and cultivate the growth mindset in your organisation.


Your facilitator, Burke Turner, leads the Ways of Working practice for We Are Atmosphere and helps clients in a range of sectors from financial services to giants of retail like Tesco accelerate changes in the way their teams function.

Burke is currently shaping a cutting-edge development curriculum for a leading UK publisher.

Growth Mindset matters – 3 reasons why it matters to you

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