Getting comfortable with failure

(ours and others’)
WRITTEN BY ELLYN KERR, BEHAVIOR DESIGNER, RESEARCHER + STRATEGIST

Growth mindset in practice

Growth mindset—the belief that skills and abilities can be developed with effort—has become an organizational buzz-phrase, with the likes of Microsoft’s Satya Nadella calling it a game-changer.

But as Dr. Carol Dweck (who coined the term) herself acknowledged, not everybody gets growth mindset right. It’s not simply about positive attitude or praising efforts. And it’s not a personality trait that you have or don’t. It’s a skill you apply—and this application can be challenging, both for individuals and organizations.

 Growth mindset can be messy

At times when discussing growth mindset, organizations and organizational designers can misplace an emphasis on positive thinking. This bypasses how messy the application of growth mindset can be.

To actively practice growth mindset means to allot time and space for learning curves—to give ourselves and others full permission to make mistakes, recalibrate, and continue on a learning path. This sounds great in theory, but when we’re managing deadlines and budgets, it’s usually easier to opt for efficiency over development.

Furthermore, practicing growth mindset can be viscerally uncomfortable—because it demands self-regulation, and managing our emotions is cognitively costly. Similarly to how courage is practiced when one is in great fear, growth mindset comes into effect specifically when we’re learning, and especially when the learning gets tough. How do we keep frustration at bay so as to preserve mental resources for the task at hand of learning difficult new concepts or skills?

Practice = attitude + action

Language plays a critical role in this self-regulation. Studies have shown, for instance, that empowered self-talk (e.g., saying “I don’t” versus “I can’t” when we’re giving up a bad habit) can affect progress towards a goal.

It’s been said that the growth-mindset keyword is “yet”, as in, “I’m not good at that yet”. A more encapsulating phrase might be “I will” (or for teams, “we will”). Growth mindset implies a commitment to observable progress, or as Carol Dweck insists, to productive effort. And because learning is essentially failure repeated until something becomes ensconced in memory, growth mindset is a lot about how we manage potential frustration along the way.

“Growth mindset implies a commitment
to observable progress.”

Recall when you first learned to drive a vehicle. It probably felt clumsy and stilted, even though none of the individual components of driving is particularly daunting. Essentially, until your basal ganglia and cerebellum created procedural memory, you kept making mistakes, each time reinforcing neural pathways for the “correct” learning. At the level of synapses, learning has a biologically structural component, and building any physical architecture simply takes time and energy inputs.

Human resources—or human beings?

Growth mindset at an organizational level adds another element: a relational one.
How we respond to others reveals how deeply we’ve espoused growth mindset in an organizational context. Whether with people we lead, our peers, or those we report to, if we find ourselves getting frustrated or judging them instead of focusing on how we can support them to grow, there’s a good chance we’re not actively putting growth mindset into practice.

A good question to ask is, “Given the outcomes I want to achieve, what can I do right now with this person to advance their growth?”

In growth mindset, we implicitly and tacitly identify ourselves and others as capable, trust in the collective capacity to tackle the next step, and commit to the desired learning outcome. As such, we find ourselves naturally asking different questions and approaching both problems and goals in a way that fosters engagement, innovation, and effective collaboration; these are the promises of growth mindset, and why growth mindset itself is a skill well worth learning.

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