The perennial question: Is the glass “half empty” or “half full?” It all depends on your perspective.
When I commented on whether one looks at the glass from a stationary perspective or dynamic perspective (link below), I stumbled upon the well-researched topic of “mindfulness” that I hadn’t known about at the time. Persons dominated by a “fixed mindset” (stationary) and “growth mindset” (dynamic) see the world very differently; both mindsets are powerful engines that drive human thinking and behavior.
Thanks to one of my favorite blogs, Maria Popova’s www.brainpickings.org, I learned what Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The new psychology of success” (link below) has to offer for us to think about, how one “simple” attitude can reach deeply into our lives.
From a “fixed mindset” a person sees talents, intelligence, or creativity as given, fixed, “carved in stone.” This same mindset also accepts the premise that there are standards against which these given assets should be measured. It’s a deterministic view of oneself. People with fixed mindset constantly have to prove themselves, and would regard “failure” as a shameful testament against who they are. Such a mind is always hungry for approval.
From a “growth mindset” one assumes that there are opportunities for development, in intelligence, creativity or any talent a person happens to possess. People of such a mindset assume a “free will” attitude and see “failure” as a turning point, a potential springboard for improvement. “Failure” becomes synonymous with “opportunity” or “challenge.” Such a mind is always onto stretching itself further.
A growth mindset doesn’t go Pollyanna and think all people can become a Mozart or Einstein if they just keep trying and working hard. Professor Dweck writes “…a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable)” and that we cannot foresee what we can accomplish with “passion, toil, and training.” In the “fixed mindset,” it sees effort as driven by weakness; the smart ones don’t need to exert much to succeed. In “fixed mindset” thinking, Beethoven sure made writing symphonies look so easy, didn’t he? And Da Vinci was born talented; all he did was just to prove how creative he was!
What is even more fascinating is that we are ingrained in adopting either of these mindsets in our childhood. Professor Dweck’s 20+ years of research demonstrates that children who receive praise for “how smart they are” tend to forgo more challenges in their work, and just want to move on to the next test to show off their “ability,” a given asset from birth. The children who receive praise for their “efforts” to get good marks want to learn more different and challenging tasks. This finding did not surprise Dweck, but the next level of development did. Her research shows that children who deem themselves “smart” and want to keep that status tend to lie about their true scores; they feel they need to hide their “deficiencies.” This is indeed disheartening.
Might this be the driver for some managers who would rather “lie/hide facts” than acknowledge some mistakes?
Further, Dweck’s research also shows the relationships between these mindsets and receiving feedback. “Fixed mindset” tends to ignore feedback on their mistakes; it tends to listen to only that which confirms its talents. For these people, failures are buried as soon as possible so that they can maintain their image.
Yes, the implications are clear: “fixed mindset” limits one’s development, and “growth mindset” sees no limits. The unfortunate nomenclature of these labels betrays the preferred mode of thinking. Indeed, there are plenty of smart people with the “fixed mindset” but would know better to reveal it, because after all, who wouldn’t want to be associated with “growth?” The good news is that once people realize and face their orientation (and be honest about it), they can change their attitude and overcome the binds they have put on themselves.
The bad news? I am afraid managers of “fixed mindset” are likely to lead their people to plateau at only modest levels of performance. And teachers of this mindset may encourage more students to hide their “deficiencies.” Just a couple of examples.
The neutral news is that just because we can develop skills and even become skillful in a certain area doesn’t mean that that’s our predilection. For instance, just because I can learn computer programming doesn’t mean I like it; in fact, I may downright hate it. Or, just because a thoughtful and quiet person can be a good manager doesn’t mean that same quiet person feels perfectly fit in a managerial role.
The social world is always terribly complicated to a social scientist. That’s why we keep studying it, writing about it, and talking about it.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.