Harnessing the power of the growth mindset

Discover the differences between growth and fixed mindsets so you can nurture continuous improvement in your team.

What is fixed and growth mindset? 

It’s said that the human brain is infinitely more powerful than any computer, but that isn’t always much help if you have the wrong approach to using it. While a computer can complete the same task an infinite number of times, a team needs the right mindset and encouragement to achieve their goals. That’s where the growth mindset comes in.

Growth mindset and its opposite—fixed mindset—is a concept that was developed by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, as outlined in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s research defines a mindset as a "self-perception," in other words, how you see yourself. Whether you are aware of your opinion of yourself or not, this mindset has a huge impact on your daily life.

Stemming from decades of research on children’s attitudes throughout middle school and high school education, Dweck identified two clear paths that shaped the way these young people dealt with failure: either fixed or growth mindsets.

The fixed mindset

The fixed mindset is, as the name suggests, one in which a person believes that things are fixed a certain way and unchangeable. While this may sound old-fashioned or close-minded, Dweck maintains that the fixed mindset can be as much about positive self-opinion as it is negative. A positive fixed mindset of "I am intelligent" or "I am talented" can encourage high self-esteem. A negative fixed mindset of "I am stupid" or "I have no clear talent" can lead to self-deprecation.

No matter how a person who exhibits a fixed mindset feels, Dweck suggests that failure is still inevitable as they won’t be able to see change as a valid option.

The growth mindset

The other—preferable—mindset is the growth mindset. An individual who operates on a growth mindset may still have an overtly positive "I am highly creative" or harshly critical "I am not talented at all" opinion, but the key differences are based on their belief that this can be changed. They believe that through hard work and a willingness to adopt new strategies and commitment, an individual can build on their basic qualities to ultimately become someone truly accomplished.

Fixed mindset examples

Let’s take a closer look at fixed mindset, and how it can hold back a person in daily life. Gerald is a young man with a fixed mindset. It has given him the unshakable belief that he is highly talented in sports and fitness, but utterly incapable in math, science and traditional academics. Gerald therefore does not push himself to improve in those areas, as he believes his intelligence is simply not made for it.

He does not necessarily push himself in the area of his greatest skill, either, as he believes talent has laid the way for him, just as it has done in the past. Gerald will enter college on a football scholarship, so he sees no need to push himself. When confronted with his failures, he makes excuses like: “I was too busy with practice to study for that test” and so on.

Growth mindset examples

The growth mindset can face the same set of circumstances but tackles them in a wholly different, and more positive and productive, way:

Jessica is a woman who operates on a growth mindset. Jessica is arguably not very talented at sports and is perfectly average in class. Jessica knows that to get into her college of choice, she must improve in both areas. She instinctively knows that in order to perform better, she cannot be complacent. She does not perceive her basic abilities or intelligence as obstacles, but rather as starting points from which she can grow.

As Jessica reflects on her shortcomings, she’s able to understand where she’s gone wrong and apply this knowledge to her future studies. Through hard work and the total belief that dedication will pay off, both Jessica’s grades and athletic performance improve. While she’ll never possess the natural athletic ability that Gerald enjoys, she can still make positive and significant strides that are valuable.

What does this mean for your business?

While Dweck’s research is based on student mindsets, that’s not to say that these thought patterns don’t follow us into adulthood. Your team is very likely composed of a mix of both fixed and growth mindsets. So how can you make sure the positive traits of the growth mindset far outweigh the fixed mindset for you and your team?

Break down structure

By break down, we don’t mean you should destroy all work processes; instead, we encourage creative new ways of thinking. Flattened hierarchies, open company cultures, and an office attitude that delivers process praise for things done in a new and successful way can all encourage a growth mindset.

By creating an open, fearless, collaborative team mentality, you also do away with comfort zones. Make sure no one is ever afraid to try something new, to improve and to develop new skills. Dropbox Paper helps your team work together seamlessly. Using integrated communication and collaboration features brings your team members together in a more fluid and transparent way, pushing them outside their usual comfort zones—comfortably.

Put strategies in place

Fixed mindset individuals may not have ever thought meaningfully about strategy. After all, if you have always believed talent or natural gifts will see you through, you’re unlikely to be prepared for when they don’t. In the same way teachers help students discover new learning strategies, regardless of their mindset, you can help your team uncover new ways of performing in their roles.

This might be as simple as adopting key digital tools to make everything streamlined and create new thought processes. Or it may involve encouraging individuals who operate with fixed traits to work closely with people you know have a much more open approach in their own mindset.

Let failure occur

One of the most effective aspects of any learning process, is failure. It’s an attitude places like Dropbox embrace. What you must absolutely do, is celebrate failure as a path to success. A fixed mindset individual will see failure as inevitable, dismissing it as “why did I expect this to turn out differently?”. That’s why several Dropboxers produced a zine to help educate and encourage their colleagues to view failure in a different way. The expectation is for key learning and growth to come out of failure. So don’t let the idea of “I won’t ever be able to do this” take root, instead instill the idea of “not yet, but one day.”

The false growth mindset

You’ve probably done this: set new measures in place, transformed your workplace—and even your team—but it can be hard to discern whether you’ve fallen into the trap of the false growth mindset. In the most general sense, a growth mindset is one that is open to change and new ideas, but these traits are easy to emulate without truly committing to them. The most important person to ensure sure this doesn’t happen is you.

As team leader, you need to make sure fixed mindset triggers are eliminated in your office. It’s tempting to consider naturally talented individuals as star workers worthy of more praise. But by doing so, you’re only encouraging the idea that a fixed mindset is the truth rather than promoting the idea that just about anyone can be their best if they apply themselves.

Instead, find ways to encourage the untapped potential in your team or your team members who are still finding their feet. For example, stretch projects can help them aim beyond their day-to-day responsibilities and establish their own targets for growth in the workplace. Alternatively, simply asking for input from those who don’t usually speak up can help team members to engage with your organization on their own terms.

Linking success to well-being

If your employees think that no matter what they do, only the "talented" are recognized, your business will miss out on as yet untapped, or undeveloped, talent. Individuals with incredible growth mindsets will be driven to apply these traits to other areas in their personal life rather than attempting to push themselves at work if they see no reward there. If they see no reward for pushing beyond their comfort zone into seeking to achieve more in their work, they’ll invariably become demotivated and this can impact their overall well-being.

It’s vital to adopt new approaches for yourself, too. As with anything, change should always be modeled by excellent leadership. Try to better understand your team players and know that any scenario where failure is a possibility will naturally trigger a sense of defensiveness in just about anyone. Make sure that every failure is taken as a team and always accompanied by a strategy of resolution. Set a path forward to overcome any setbacks in the future. The right mindset is one that allows for growth—not just for your company and your team—but for you as a leader.