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Growth Mindset: A New Way of Thinking

Learn about how growth vs. fixed mindset, how it can help you, ways to develop it, and connection with psychological safety.

November 2023

We hear a lot about “growth mindset,” and how having this is good for us (vs. a “fixed mindset”).  This concept tends to come up in our professional and personal lives.  

What mindset do you have? Can you change a mindset? How do you develop a growth mindset?  What’s the connection with psychological safety and growth mindset?

This blog provides answers to these questions and more by addressing:

  • What is mindset?
  • What is a growth vs. fixed mindset?
  • What is the connection between growth mindset and how our brain works?
  • How do you develop a growth mindset?
  • What is the connection between psychological safety and growth mindset?

What is mindset?

Before digging into the differences between growth vs. fixed mindset, it is helpful to get grounded on what is mindset. The official definition is the mental attitude or inclination (Merriam-Webster.com). I think of mindset as attitude or frame of mind.

Research shows that mindset affects:

  • What kind of information we pay attention to in a situation
  • How the brain handles feedback, errors, and mistakes
  • How we interpret our successes and failures

Now that we have an understanding of what mindset is, the question becomes do I have the ability to change my mindset for the better?  The answer is YES!  You can have a growth mindset.  Let’s dig into the different between growth vs. fixed mindset.

What is growth vs. fixed mindset?

The term growth mindset was coined over 30 years ago by Dr. Carol Dweck when she became interested in student’s attitudes about failure and how there was significant setback when this happened.  She coined this term to describe the underlying belief about learning and intelligence.

Higher achievement was possible when students believed in the following:

  • They can get smarter
  • Belief of continuous learning (as a goal)
  • Understood the effort and extra time

A Growth Mindset Drives Motivation & Achievement

Drive Growth Flow
Blackwell, Trzemsiewski & Dweck (2007) Child Development

This concept goes beyond higher education and can be applied to our personal lives and workplace.

Fixed Mindset is the attitude of I can’t do this! It is the belief that skills and abilities are innate and unchangeable. This can lead to a view that our performance is a test of our worth and how competent we are.  When we get stuck in a fixed mindset, we tend to avoid challenges that might reveal our shortcomings.  We then feel anxious or defensive and resist feedback. This mindset becomes an “all or nothing” game or any comparisons we have.  With a fixed mindset, one thinks, “I am the dumbest person in the room.”

Growth Mindset is the attitude of I can’t do this…YET!   It is the belief that our skills and abilities can be improved over time through effort and being persistent.  When we embrace growth mindset, we are eager to develop our skills.  We are more likely to view challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.  Our ability to learn from feedback, mistakes, and failures increases.  We are more adaptable, innovative, and resilient.  This mindset has the attitude that I can be coached and will improve from it.  With a growth mindset, one thinks, “I want to be the smartest person in the room.”

We can have both depending on the situation.  The good news is that you can change it. There is a science behind this change.  Let’s take a look at this science by how the brain works.

What is the connection between growth mindset & how the brain works?

The good news is that you can change your attitude to have a growth mindset. It is connected to how our brain is wired:   There is a part of our brain, behind our forehead, called pre-fontal cortex (PFC) that controls mindset.  PFC focuses on high-level thinking such as deciding, understanding, evaluating, and allocating attention that supports local memory (Cowan 2008).   

There is another part of the brain called dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC) associated with learning. Together, they ask What is the bigger context?  How are my behaviors interacting with this? If I am making a mistake, how do I course-correct? 

Our brain is in charge of creating or destroying pathways that will impact our behaviors and actions.  A person with a growth mindset will use every experience to learn, and their brain will create new pathways that will make them creative, resilient, and smart.  On the other hand, there are studies that show that folks with a fixed mindset have a reduced “neuronal activity,” and their brain will not even try to create new pathways and learn from the experience.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Just the concept of mindset will not rewire our brains, but there are ways we can develop a growth mindset:

  1. Use growth-mindset language.  Choice of words is key.  It gives credit to progress and learning and being positive.  Words such as improve, develop, progress, and effort, all contribute to this mindset.  Think about mantras such as practice makes progress (not perfect). It is not about looking good but it’s about getting better.  Instead of thinking I am not good at X, think:  I am not good at X YET!
  2. Experiment.  One of the best ways to grow and learn is to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing things.  Take risks, try new things, do things differently and be “playful”.   At the same time, give “grace” and recognize that mistakes and setbacks are NORMAL part of the process.  What do you want to try?
  3. Create stretch goals.  Strech goals provides an opportunity to experiment, practice skills and realize your potential.  Balance the challenge with achievement.  You don’t want to create a goal that is so far out there and impossible to reach.  There should be some level of discomfort, which is a sign of learning.  Focus on your level of effort and progress rather than just focusing on the end-result.  Give yourself credit along the process.
  4. Create a sense of purpose.   Keep the big picture in-mind.  As you continue to cultivate a growth-mindset, your sense of purpose will become clearer. Keeping the big picture in-mind will help you keep momentum.
  5. Be open to meeting new people – Network. Engage with others through conversation with folks you might have not spend time with previously.  Have an open mind, and you will get perspective on viewing things differently and learning.  This will help stimulate creativity.

Psychological Safety at the Workplace & Growth Mindset

There is a lot of focus on psychological safety at workplace (especially after the Surgeon General released a mental health framework in Oct 2022). There is a connection with this and growth mindset. 

Let’s first get grounded on what psychological safety means:  It is the belief that one can speak up with their thoughts, questions, concerns, and mistakes without feeling punished or humiliated.  It’s the idea that others will give you the benefit of the doubt when you take risks.   A workplace has this safety when you can brainstorm out loud, voice half-finished thoughts, openly challenge the status quo, share feedback and work through disagreements (Center for Creative Leadership). 

Psychological safety & growth mindset go hand in-hand:  Having a growth mindset contributes to promoting psychological safety. When organizations adopt a growth mindset, risk-taking is encouraged and employees feel comfortable speaking out, especially when their views are different than most of the team. Mistakes are seen as a trajectory to learning and innovation.  By demonstrating growth mindset, behaviors such as sharing mistakes and focusing on progress can illustrate situationally humility which is based on sharing what you do not know.  All this contributes to improving one’s well-being and ultimately contributing to the bottom-line.

I hope this blog encouraged you to Think In a New Way.

What will you do different to think in a new way?

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