The Real Secret to Success is Not What You Think
Want to enjoy your job more? Innovate in your work? Inspire your team to greatness? Create a life that makes you feel alive? It’s entirely in your power, and may be rooted not in what you do, or even what you think, but in how you think. In the book, Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck offers interesting lessons for how to truly create the engagement we seek in both our work and personal lives.
Dweck examines the idea of a growth mindset: one that fosters curiosity and resilience. Through years of research, Dweck found that resilience is rooted in the belief that our talents can be developed and improved through hard work. With enough curiosity and dedication, Dweck argues, we can accomplish much and achieve success. We are internally driven and not tripped up by obstacles.
If you consider what makes us go the extra mile—to innovate, solve tough problems, and self-motivate – an unquenchable curiosity and lust for knowledge are crucial components of our drive.
Unfortunately, as a society, we seem to chipping away at these values from our earliest experiences. We expect immediate success and devalue anything else. Consider the well-discussed issues facing public schools: Common Core’s introduction of mechanized standardized testing, the hyper-focus on grades, and the hefty emphasis on getting accepted into the right college. Gone are the days where we can encourage a child’s intellectual exploration at his or her own pace. Want to know why China is surpassing us in academics? The culture applauds and honors kids who struggle to learn.
In the Scientific American, Dweck writes, “Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”
As we climb the ladder at work, the amount that becomes unknowable increases as our domain of authority widens. Innate knowledge can only take us so far. Leaders must be able to manage uncertainty and deal with complexity eagerly – not shut down or burn out from it. A “fixed mindset” in which intelligence is valued above hard work can be extremely dangerous, fostering complacency and inhibiting innovation.
How do we get away form this way of thinking and cultivate a growth mindset in the workplace? Try some of the approaches below.
Focus on the process, not on the person.
Pay attention to how you provide feedback. When you’re complimenting an employee on a job well done, focus on what they did to do a great job, not on their inherent skills or talents. Dweck suggests, “If there is a success, even a great success, you don’t say, ‘You’re a genius! You really have talent!’ because it puts people into a fixed mindset. And then it makes them afraid of doing hard things or of making mistakes, which will dampen future creativity or innovation.”
Instead, try appreciating the individual on how well they did managing their team or how thorough their approach was. By focusing on what it took to execute the job, rather than on their inherent personality traits, they will better be able to replicate these behaviors in the future.
Start embracing the word “yet.”
A growth mindset assumes that we’re all in a state of constant improvement. To encourage it, we should communicate that sentiment as much as possible. For example, if you have an employee who botched an assignment but has potential, you want to provide feedback with a look forward.
When you go and speak to the person about the issue, try using the word “yet,” e.g., “You don’t have the right communication skills yet, but this is something we can work on.” Dweck says that this word creates a comfortable timeline for learning the skill the employee needs to acquire: “It puts the other person on that learning curve and says, ‘Well, maybe you’re not at the finish line but you’re on that learning curve and let’s go further.’”
Stop labeling people as stars.
Leaders know who their high-potential workers are, and can feel compelled to let them know. While it’s good to encourage potential, beware of how you do it or it can backfire.
If you make people believe they are the star performers, this isn’t good for anyone on your team, even those you deem to be the stars. Labels promote complacency. If someone thinks they’re a superstar, they can be hesitant to jeopardize their status.
Psychologists have shown that humans have a strong drive for loss aversion, and will act disproportionately to protect themselves. This may look like playing it safe, rejecting a stretch assignment, or politicking for self-protection.
Think big picture.
As managers, it’s easy to get locked on short-term metrics at the expense of the long view. When we lead this way, we can’t see the bigger picture of the team’s accomplishments and can suck everyone into a vortex of reactivity.
You have to be diligent to keep the pulse on the longer term. Look closely at objective performance indicators and track improvement over time. By sharing both short-term and long-term evidence, you show that you expect ups and downs in the pursuit of a larger goal. Your team members can see that it’s okay to struggle and learn as they strengthen their own skills and grow.
Showcase and sponsor opportunities for development.
Nothing says “I believe in your ability to grow” like providing visible opportunities for self-improvement. Encourage and sponsor your employees to take advantage of any professional development at your company. If you don’t have those resources, sponsor workers to go to outside conferences and trainings.
Talk openly about your own learning edge so you can model the behavior you want to see. By celebrating the places we struggle, not just the ones where we excel, we can establish a culture rooted in learning, curiosity, resilience and growth.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of The Inspiration Code and The Power of Presence. More blog posts here and at Forbes.com.
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