The benefit of a growth mindset has long been identified as the key to organizations that seek continuous improvement. Growth mindset, defined by Carol Dweck, is the belief that our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Dweck’s practice of growth mindset, though, goes further than skill development. Individuals with a growth mindset use setbacks and failures as opportunities to learn and grow.
With a growth mindset, individuals take risks to try things that may be new and uncomfortable. Fixed mindset individuals “play it safe” by doing what they know. Because of this they are more likely to succeed and, therefore, be seen as capable. But without trying something new or taking intelligent risk, growth, learning and innovation is not possible. Growth mindset individuals are open to feedback, and they don’t take that feedback personally. They see it as a way to help themselves, their organizations, and their customers improve.
Growth mindset is the aspiration – but it can turn into an unrealistic goal when folks find themselves in organizations that don’t allow them to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge failures, admit setbacks, or have teachable moments. In fact, leaders reported that a culture that punishes failure is the biggest obstacle to a growth mindset.
The truth is growth mindset must be accompanied by trust and psychological safety if the roots of Dweck’s idea are to take hold. In isolation, a growth mindset will fail to flourish in even the most eager of organizations.
With a growth mindset, employees admit mistakes and seek help from others so they can increase their skills. But that requires vulnerability that can only be expressed if employees feel their leader won’t punish that failure or criticize them for asking for help. It can only happen when they feel their career development won’t be negatively impacted by expressing they don’t know something. In short, employees will only express vulnerability if they know they can trust.
Trust is one of the most foundational building blocks of leadership success. With trust, communication is easier and more effective. With trust, accountability feels like partnership. With trust, coaching happens smoothly and is more likely to elicit breakthrough thinking. Without trust, even the most basic interactions can be fraught with tension and a high stakes interaction, like admitting a mistake, can feel near impossible.
Why psychological safety?
Trust is necessary but insufficient to support a Growth Mindset. And while trust and psychological safety are connected, they are different concepts. Psychological safety is group-level-trust that lets someone know they can bring their full selves to the work they do and the ideas they contribute, and they will be supported. When an individual feels psychologically safe, they are empowered to take chances. A fixed mindset seeks a less risky decision likely to guarantee success, but less likely to lead to innovation.
Imagine an employee launching a new product with a known defect. If that individual has a fixed mindset, they will avoid letting others know about the problem for fear of looking like a failure. But in an environment of psychological safety, the chances are greater they will share the challenge with their teammates, elicit feedback or guidance, and correct the problem.
The power of a growth mindset, and the culture that supports it, is real. Growth mindset is not an overly optimistic outlook on our own capabilities. Growth mindset is owning opportunities for improvement and doing so with the confidence that leaders and team members will support us with individual and group level trust.