Mindset Theory

Mindset Theory Blog Post

Mindset Theory

Mindset matters – and here’s why

Mindsets – the way you see yourself and the world around you – can shape your life. When that mindset is about a core concept such as intelligence, its power to shape is even greater. In fact, according to Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University, the originator of mindset theory, the way you think about intelligence can either lock or unlock your potential, weaken or strengthen your resolve, dampen or fire your creativity. It can even affect your level of intelligence.

There are two intelligence mindsets: fixed and growth. Here’s Dweck on the difference between the two:
“People with a fixed mindset believe that their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that. Those with a growth mindset understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, listening to feedback and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if he or she works at it”.
[Morehead 2012]

Fixed and growth mindsets, though, aren’t only found in individuals, you also get them in organisations. And that organisational mindset can itself have an influence on the potential, resolve and creativity of the whole organisation. Get it right and everyone flourishes – the employee, the client and the organisation. It’s win, win, win. But if you get it wrong, it’s lose, lose, lose. You get fed-up employees, dissatisfied clients and a stagnating organisation.

So how do you embed mindset theory into your organisation? Well, here are five tips to show you how. And, by the way, the tips work for all organisations too, whether it’s a school, a factory, an office or a veterinary practice.


Top Tip No.1: talk about mindset theory

People with a fixed mindset can’t really imagine that someone could ever have a growth mindset – and vice versa. Mindsets exist without question. They are a part of our core belief system with each presenting a truth so obvious that any other way of seeing the world is near unimaginable. Thing is, only one of the mindsets is correct (growth, of course), but the other seems no less correct to those who hold it.

So you need to make Dweck’s ideas familiar in your organisation. Have conversations about mindset theory; share Dweck’s book (see ‘sources’ below) and articles; show her online videos; put up mindset posters; run CPD sessions; invite a speaker in to talk to the staff group; share this article. Do all of that (and the four tips that follow!) and everyone benefits. The growth mindset employee ends up with an extra dose of ‘growth’ – and no doubt a bit of empathy for those who are fixed – and the fixed mindset employee gets to see how their own mindset is disabling them. More than that, they are now able to make a choice that wasn’t previously available to them: to act in either a fixed or a growth mindset way. They couldn’t make that choice before because they didn’t know the choice existed.


Top Tip No.2: explain neuroplasticity

As we’ve all experienced, learning a new skill is difficult – and the more complex it is, the more difficult it is. Take driving, for instance. You have to concentrate on your feet, concentrate on your hands, and then somehow coordinate both at the same time.

And while you’re getting to grips with all of that, your instructor has the cheek to tell you that you’ve got to look at the road too. In the beginning, learning to drive is difficult, but as we know it gets increasingly easier – to the point, in fact, that if you’ve been driving for a while you can do all of the above without even thinking about it. More than that, you can also listen to the radio, have a conversation and plan your day. And how is all of that possible? Well, it’s down to something called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to hardwire skills into its neural network. It’s often shortened to plasticity – plasticity because something is said to be plastic if it can change its shape and retain that shape, and that’s precisely what your brain can do. Your brain literally grows new connections between brain cells. In the beginning, your brain has to use conscious effort to perform the skill (and not very well at that); but once it’s hardwired, it’s performed unconsciously, automatically and efficiently.

Neuroplasticity is a word that everyone (student, teacher, parent, lollypop lady, veterinary practice manager – everyone!) needs to know and understand, because if they do, then they know and understand how their brain learns.


Top Tip No.3: embed stretch, feedback and stickability

Let’s look at each in turn. Stretch refers to doing something that has a degree of difficulty – if there’s no difficulty, there’s no learning. Feedback is, well, feedback. It clarifies ideas, rectifies mistakes and tweaks performance. It shows you your blind spots or near-blind spots. The trick is to be open to feedback, to assess it objectively and to incorporate it willingly. And lastly there’s stickability.

Stickability is the act of supergluing yourself to a task. If the superglue comes unstuck, then stickability is also the process of re-application. Stickability is falling down seven times and standing up eight.

Consider these three zones: the comfortable, the stretch, and the panic. Fixed mindset people want to be in the comfortable zone. In this zone they get to do what they’ve always done, which means that effort is not needed and they won’t fail. That’s the appeal. Unfortunately, in the comfortable zone, there’s also no learning or development. So, if you want progress to happen, it’s a no-go zone. Another no-go zone is the panic zone. Why? Because in this zone you get so overwhelmed by pressure and stress that learning is impossible.


For progress to happen people need to be in the stretch zone. If you stay in the stretch zone, stay with that degree of difficulty, changes will happen in the brain and learning will take place.

Furthermore, over a relatively short period of time, the stretch zone will become the new comfort zone, and the panic zone, which was once outside your reach, will become the new stretch. This is the learning process in action – and if you help your colleagues to understand this process, then you are helping them understand how to learn, progress and flourish.


Top Tip No.3a: an addendum

Teaching about stretch, feedback and stickability is not enough – hence this addendum. You also have to model it. If you want your colleagues to stay out of the comfort zone, to be open to feedback, to keep going regardless of setbacks and difficulties, then you have to model those three things yourself. If you do, then they’ll believe that you believe those things to be important. At the same time, you’ll be showing them how it’s done. So model it!

Top Tip No.4: use the true meaning of the word ‘fail’

For most people most of the time, the word ‘fail’ is used in a fixed mindset way. It’s a synonym for words like rubbish, loser, worthless, stupid, idiot and moron. It connotes with emotions like embarrassment, humiliation and shame. But this usage is as wildly inaccurate as it is unhelpful. In reality, ‘fail’ is an acronym for First Attempt in Learning. You see, if you can do something right away, then that’s not learning, that’s just doing what you can already do. It can also stand for Fourth Attempt in Learning or Fifth Attempt in Learning or Fiftieth Attempt in Learning. It really doesn’t matter which because every time you fail you get a learning opportunity, a feedback loop that allows you to refine your attempts until you get it right – or even better than right. It’s called trial and error and it’s the principle way that we learn.

Who has the most failures? Think about that question for a moment. Who would you say has the most failures? Now, your temptation might be to say ‘those who are least successful’ but you’d be wrong. It’s actually the high achievers. By failing the most, they learn the most.

Mozart mainly didn’t compose masterpieces; Michelangelo mainly mucked it up; Messi mainly misses the goal. But because they fail, they get more learning opportunities, and those opportunities mean that they get more successes. And as this process continues, incrementally and over time, the successes become spectacular.

Failure, then, is not something to be feared, it’s something to be embraced. To fail is to learn, and that’s the true meaning of the word – the meaning that needs to be embedded in the workplace. Sure, you need to mitigate and check the dangers of failure (you’d be business-bonkers not to) but the point remains: success comes from failure, and a fear of failure leads to stagnation.


Top Tip No.5: use descriptive rather than evaluative praise

If you tell people that they’re clever or that their work is brilliant, then you’re doing them no favours whatsoever. Sure, they’ll feel good (and you’ll feel good because you made them feel good) but actually, you’ll be inducing a fixed mindset. They will love your praise so much that they will do whatever they can to protect that praise. So, to make sure that you always think that they’re clever, around you they’ll stop taking risks. If they fail, you see, you might change your mind about their intellectual abilities. They may even reduce their effort. Why? Well, if they have to work hard at something then they can’t really be that clever, can they? Things for them should come easily, shouldn’t they?

So, then, around you, rather than progress, they might begin to plateau, perhaps even fall back.

Praise is important, but the praise you want is not evaluative (as above), it’s descriptive. Descriptive praise focuses on four areas of performance: effort, progress, process and detail. Here’s an example not from the workplace of adults, but the workplace of children: school.


Grace, well done for your hard work.

When I saw your picture last week you hadn’t really managed to capture its movement, but now I get a real sense of the train coming towards me.

You’ve thought hard about perspective and been careful about how you’ve shown it.

The way you’ve drawn the smoke, how the track narrows, the size of the engine at the front, all add to the sense of movement.

And how about another sentence on effort:
What are you going to do to make the picture even better?

It’s not always necessary to give all four elements of descriptive praise – often it’s enough to focus on one or two. But what you mustn’t do (ever!) is praise outcome or intelligence. Do that and, paradoxically, outcomes will worsen and intelligence will reduce.


One other thing – and it’s vitally important!
Repeat tips 1 to 5 over and over again (and again).

Fixed mindsets are fixed in two ways: fixed about the concept of intelligence, but also fixed in that they are difficult to budge. The problem is one of habit. If it’s been your habit to think in a fixed mindset way, then that habit will do it’s utmost to hold on to you. Yes, we might understand and accept the reality of Dweck’s work, but that doesn’t mean that we are free of fixed mindset thinking. All smokers know the dangers of smoking, but not all smokers quit. So, to help someone break free of fixed mindset thinking, or to become even more growth mindset than they currently are, you need to repeat tips 1 to 5 over and over again (and again).

The more you repeat the tips, the more people will get it; the more they get it, the more they believe in it; the more they believe in it, the more likely they are to make growth mindset choices. And when you and your colleagues are in that position, well, that’s when potential is truly released – the potential of the individual and the potential of the organisation, whether that organisation is a school, a factory or an office or, say, a veterinary practice.

Dweck, Carol S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Morehead, J. (2012). Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education. [online] OneDublin.org.
Available at: https://onedublin.org/2012/06/19/stanford-universitys-carol-dweck-on-the-growth-mindset-and-education/


Robin Launder is the founder of Behaviour Buddy, a company that specialises in evidence-based CPD. Robin regularly speaks at conferences, schools and businesses about mindset theory and neuroscience. Some of you may have met him at our 2017 conference. You can contact him through his website (behaviourbuddy.co.uk) or follow him on twitter (@behaviourbuddy)

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