In the book Mindset, Carol Dweck describes the differences between a fixed and growth mindset by using examples from sports and business to illustrate how people approach success.

People with a fixed mindset believe that talent and intelligence are static – you either have it or you don’t. As a result, they become less inclined to challenge themselves in case they fail and are seen as lacking ability.

In contrast, those with a growth mindset believe that everyone has the potential to improve. They see each experience as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and build on their weaknesses, and this approach to personal development ultimately leads to more fulfilment and progress.

True to the concept, Dweck points out that we are all capable of moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, but we first need to be aware of and understand them.  

Mindset has a significant impact in the workplace.  Dweck dedicates a chapter to business, management and leadership, and outlines the characteristics of leaders with each of the mindsets. A brief summary:

How leaders see themselves: Fixed mindset leaders see themselves as better than others. They like to think of themselves as the hero or superstars. Growth mindset leaders are not trying to prove they are better than others. They admit their mistakes and are committed to learning and improving.

How they see others: Fixed mindset leaders believe in the notion of natural talent and therefore hire on this basis. They judge people as either competent or not competent. Growth mindset leaders believe in human potential and development. Natural talent can exist but it’s only the starting point, so they act more as a guide rather than a judge.

How they see teams: Fixed mindset leaders value the individual over teamwork. They feel threatened by the notion of needing other people to succeed. They actively discourage dissent from their own views, which leads to groupthink (more on that later). Growth mindset leaders have an emphasis on teamwork and reward it over individual genius. Growth mindset leaders acknowledge and value the people that they work with.

By outlining these differences, it becomes clear how a leader can inform the culture of an organisation – a closed, fearful, competitive culture created by a fixed mindset leader, or an open, progressive and supportive culture influenced by a growth mindset leader. This can also impact the way people work together.

In an experiment, Dweck noticed the impact that mindset had at the team level. When given a simulated management task, growth mindset teams were able to learn from their mistakes and go on to outperform other teams. They were more likely to express their opinions to each other and encouraged feedback and debate in order to improve.

On the other hand, people in fixed mindset teams were too worried about looking clever and maintaining this image of themselves. This led to groupthink, and they got stuck.

There’s a lot that can be taken from this to apply to teamwork, not just in terms of everyone’s skills and capabilities, but how a team approaches how they work together.

Does your team:

  • assume that if people are good at what they do, then they will naturally work well together?
  • avoid spending time on improving collaboration, seeing it as a bad use of time?
  • rely on the talent of ‘star players’ to pull you through?

Or do you:

  • believe that every team can improve the way it works together?
  • approach collaboration as a skill that can be developed with attention and effort?
  • actively identify areas for improvement in your processes so that you can work on them?

Moving from a fixed to growth mindset isn’t easy – if it’s hard at the individual level, it’s even harder on a collective level. Whichever mindset your team falls into now, here are some ways to cultivate a growth mindset: 

  • Foster productive conflict: Start by creating an environment where people are able to be open and honest, to avoid groupthink and support better decision-making. As Dweck says: 

    “Assign people to play the devil’s advocate, taking opposing viewpoints so you can see the holes in your position. Get people to wage debates that argue different sides of the issue. …Remember, people can be independent thinkers and team players at the same time”

  • Perform a team audit: Take time as a team to look at where you are now, identify opportunities for working better and how you can improve it. It can be challenging to highlight weaknesses, but Google’s Team Effectiveness tool, based on the five factors they identified within successful teams,  is a good place to start.

  • Do team retrospectives: Engaging in regular reflection through retrospectives can transform a team’s performance by looking back to see what went well, what didn’t and what you would do differently. In their first annual report on retrospectives, InfoQ found that they can lead to “improved team communication and productivity and help to create an environment of trust”

  • Deliberate practice: create experiments to try out and regularly practice new methods with your team, and set intentions for how you monitor, measure and review your progress. This could be like seeing the impact of starting your meetings with a check-in round, changing the way you use Slack to minimise distractions or sending shorter emails.

Teams with a growth mindset know that great teamwork doesn’t happen by itself. It means creating a culture where you are safe to challenge each other, learn from your mistakes and use them to grow.

Image by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash.