Believing That You Can Grow To Meet Your Challenge
Imagine your most embarrassing moment of all time. Re-live it for a moment, savoring that stomach-clenching sensation of what felt like mortification at the time.
When I arrived in Spain last fall to pursue a job teaching English, I soon became acutely aware that the potential for such a moment lurked around every corner. Even the most innocuous exchange with my neighborhood supermarket cashier meant an opportunity to commit a cultural faux pas, language gaffe, or otherwise make a fool out of myself. It didn't help that I had arrived to the country with a whole host of lofty to-dos and goals: find a good apartment with Spanish roommates, open a bank account, get a residence card, learn how to teach, work as a private tutor, travel, and make a close-knit group of Spanish friends in a culture notorious for being difficult to break into. Keep in mind that amidst all of this, I was not yet proficient in the language.
The fact that I didn't know how to accomplish even one of the items on my list was semi-terrifying. It was a recipe for which anyone would have felt license to staying in bed all day. Better yet, I could've cancelled my international flight, stayed in my comfort zone at home, and siphoned the money to a personal fund dedicated to exotic coffee purchases. But I didn't. In fact, I did the complete opposite. I flung myself into the uncertainty--and emerged flourishing.
Like a bull charging the matador's cape, I was relentless about pursuing experiences that would stretch me. All of them would have a high probability of being difficult, awkward, and embarrassing. What, then, was the X-factor that enabled me to welcome such ambiguity of not knowing, of not having all the answers, with open arms? The key was approaching my endeavors with a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is having the belief that one's most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995). In contrast, a fixed mindset is believing that one's basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. These researchers further explain that those with a growth mindset are individuals who go for it, challenge themselves, and grow without worrying about how smart they are, how they look, or what a mistake will mean.
So, how does this play out in the workplace? With a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. Such opportunities provide the potential for learning and growth, rather than failure. You’re focused on the process and open enough to reflect on the experiences that bring success just as much as those that cause failure in order to learn from them to do better next time. If you find yourself worrying about a challenge, feeling stifled by a setback, or focusing on your performance or outcome rather than process, you may have fallen into the fixed mindset trap. If you're contemplating questions such as ‘Will I live up to my reputation? Will I look good? Will people think I'm brilliant?’ try to reframe your situation and tell yourself, ‘Awesome-I get to grow my skill-set! I’m excited to tackle a new challenge’ and you will better set yourself up for growth mindset thinking.
As valuable as the growth mindset is, employees won't feel safe enough to utilize this perspective unless it's supported from the top. Here are three things that managers can do to foster growth mindset at work:
1. Value dedication, learning, passion, and challenge, not genius.
Companies hire those with great pedigree, but pedigree doesn't tell you about passion and drive. Make it known to new hires what you value.
2. Expect growth and risk-taking.
Tell your employees that they're not expected to arrive at your doors fully formed, but they should be ready to learn and be stretched.
3. Reward throughout the process.
You say you value the process? Well, reward it. Reward teamwork and the pursuit of challenge doggedly. Show appreciation for the process and experience, not just the ability.
Feel free to unclench your stomach now. How empowering does it feel to know you'll never be humiliated in the boardroom? For me, practicing a growth mindset led to unprecedented levels of engagement, development, and productivity. Now let's unleash this power amongst our very own employees.
Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C. Y., & Hong, Y. Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A word from two perspectives. Psychological inquiry, 6(4), 267-285.
Image from Swissmiss Studios.