Leaders naturally want their employees to bounce back from failures and strive toward improvement — the hallmarks of a growth mindset. But how to cultivate that reality is seldom easy or obvious.Our research at the NeuroLeadership Institute finds better feedback conversations mark the smartest place to start.We define growth mindset as the dual belief that employees’ skills can be improved and that improving those skills is the point of the work people do. The trouble many companies run into, however, is getting people to seek out improvement. Growth mindset is uncomfortable. It requires people to confront their weaknesses, which may feel like personal shortcomings.Regular feedback conversations, in which people ask for feedback rather than give it unsolicited, may help people see challenges as opportunities, not threats.
Real Lessons From Fake Negotiations
NLI recently published a study that included 62 people from a major consultancy, who were asked to engage in a mock negotiation. Each negotiation was one on one. Researchers behind the study hooked subjects up to heart rate monitors. During the negotiation and in feedback conversations afterward, the heart rate monitors tracked people’s physiological responses. Findings indicated that feedback-givers were just as stressed out as askers. However, those givers who were asked for feedback showed less heart-rate reactivity than givers made to give feedback unprompted.
We draw a lot of conclusions from the study. In terms of growth mindset, the biggest one is that asker-led feedback conversations are a lower-stress way for teams to discuss performance. If leaders can encourage team members to ask for explicit feedback on a regular basis, we contend that employees will gradually begin to view critiques as less threatening. They’ll focus less on failures and more on growth. They’ll welcome challenges, not shy away from them.
Start Small to Go Broad
Leaders play a crucial role in modeling this behavior. According to NYU psychologist Tessa West, an NLI senior scientist and the study’s lead author, it’s still threatening to start asking for feedback. So leaders can use small-stakes questions to get people thinking in terms of improvement, rather than pure wins or losses. For instance, a manager can ask her team what they thought of her eye contact during the last meeting.
Performed over and over again, across departments, asking for feedback could hold the power to send a growth mindset rippling across an entire organization. And it all begins with the decision to ask the right questions.
The Biggest Myth About Growth Mindset
Growth mindset has gained a lot of popularity in organizations over the past decade, now standing as many leaders’ favorite buzzword for boosting productivity. But there’s still one myth that widely persists among companies — at the risk of employee and organizational well-being. Contrary to what many leaders believe, growth mindset does not refer to a person’s limitless capacity to get things done. For the past three months, NLI has interviewed HR practitioners at more than 20 major organizations around the world, as part of an industry research project. Our goal was to find out what, exactly, leaders were doing when they implemented growth mindset around their organization. We found a range of interpretations. Some thought growth mindset was purely a focus on business growth. Others saw it as the belief that any achievement was possible, no matter how unrealistic the goal.
In fact, our working definition of growth mindset is: the dual belief that skills and abilities can be improved, and that developing your skills and abilities is the purpose of the work you do.
On occasion, managers who hadn’t quite grasped this concept thought employees with a growth mindset were happy to take on projects endlessly. If they claimed their plate was full, they were seen as having a fixed mindset — a scarlet “F” around many offices. The trouble with this line of thinking is that everyone, at some point, faces issues of “capacity,” or the brain’s limit for cognitive function. There is only so much thought people can devote to their various tasks before their output begins to plateau, or even decrease. Managers who keep overloading their employees with work actually inhibit, not propel, long-term progress. What’s more, by making a judgment on people’s ability to handle more and more tasks, managers risk damaging employees’ sense of status. What initially may have been a point of pride could turn into shame over poor productivity.For the sake of employee and organizational health, leaders should align on the true definition of growth mindset. Saying your plate is full isn’t a sign that your thinking is flawed. In fact, it may be the opposite — a sign that in order to develop your skills, the most important thing you can do is pause, and focus on the job at hand.
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