What People Teams Need to Know About How to Develop a Growth Mindset at Work and in Teams

This post is updated from an original version published on September 7, 2021.

Team leaders often have contact with people of varying personalities, interests and career backgrounds. Although diversity is an advantage for work teams, there is one area where uniformity has great advantages: mindset.

A person’s mindset is a set of beliefs that shape how they make sense of both themselves and the world. When psychologists talk about growth mindset, they specifically reference the perception that people have about learning and intelligence.

Some people believe that intelligence and learning capacity are innate, and thus unable to be changed. Those who operate this way have what’s called a “fixed mindset.” They hold limiting beliefs, which in turn limit their growth opportunities. 

What Is a Growth Mindset & Why Is It Important?

You may have heard of the term “growth mindset.” Pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck, this term explains why some people thrive in challenging situations and others stagnate. So what exactly is a growth mindset?

Here’s a quick explainer on what it is and how you can use it in your workplace.

A Simple Growth Mindset Definition (It’s Not Just Being Positive!)

Understanding the concept fully involves dealing with some misconceptions that we all inherently hold, but Carol Dweck herself provides a straightforward growth mindset definition:

“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.”

Dweck initially focused her efforts on education, where these ideas have helped produce better outcomes for students. But the idea that you can get better at something is valuable in every area of life.

It’s important, however, to understand what growth mindset is not: it’s not simply your outlook, or about praising effort, or just optimism. These misconceptions are so common that Dweck had to take to the pages of the Harvard Business Review to refute them. Having a growth mindset means a willingness to do the hard work necessary to improve and learn from mistakes. It also means recognizing fixed-mindset behaviors in yourself and working to change them.

Download our June 2022 Inclusive Collaboration at Work study for fresh insights about how US and UK workers currently think about work and what they need to engage, stay, and thrive.

How a Growth Mindset Helps Teams

The fruits of a growth mindset are critical to a high-functioning team. They include behaviors and thinking like “sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, or admitting errors,” according to Dweck.

Developing a growth mindset can help you hire and your employee experience. Fixed mindset individuals are more likely to see themselves as “the star”. They are less likely to compromise, and often unwilling to take criticism or adjust to help the team. They also tend to be more afraid of failure and thus less likely to seize new challenges or take risks. If failure means that you’re not as intelligent, of course people will tend to avoid it. But with a growth mindset, failure is a critical part of building new skills, and effort is rewarding.

Teams that still operate with a fixed mindset are less likely to have healthy conflict, and less likely to accept criticism and grow from it.

Placing a growth mindset as the foundation of your hiring process and development means handling change and challenges gracefully.

Understanding Growth Mindsets vs. Fixed Mindsets

Learning the difference between fixed and growth mindsets can help team members unlock the ability to go beyond what they thought were their limits. When all team members adopt a growth mindset, collaboration and innovation are increased, ultimately driving organizational growth and greater success. Let’s look a little deeper to unpack exactly how growth mindsets and fixed mindsets differ.

Fixed Mindset

People with fixed mindsets believe that their abilities and talents are inherent. In other words, you either have certain capabilities or you don’t. Individuals with a fixed mindset typically prefer to stay in their comfort zones and complete tasks they already do well. On the outside, such behavior can make the individual appear “naturally smart” and highly successful. 

However, this behavior limits innovation and learning, reinforcing the idea that they lack specific traits. By staying within a comfortable space, individuals with a fixed mindset never access the tools that would allow them to reach their true potential.

Growth Mindset

With a growth mindset, people believe that talents and intelligence can be developed through learning, practice, and hard work. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace new tools, enjoy learning new tasks, and seek opportunities to experiment. They often even see failure as a learning opportunity that builds growth. As a result, growth-minded individuals do make mistakes.

Yet, with the outlook that effort, not natural ability, leads to success, growth-minded people expand their knowledge and ultimately reach loftier goals. By accepting that failure is a part of learning, these team members think outside the box to access the tools needed to evolve toward the future.

Agile vs Static

Unfortunately, the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset isn’t as simple as adopting a new title. These behaviors are typically ingrained and frequently unrecognized. For instance, individuals might think they don’t have a fixed mindset because they’re willing to take on a new task. However, such a task might be squarely in their comfort zone. 

For example, imagine if a person short in stature simply accepted they could never reach anything on the top shelf. This person might be willing to stand on their tiptoes and stretch to reach things, but climbing a ladder would be out of the question.

Conversely, the same individual with a growth mindset seeks different ways to reach the top shelf. Without a step ladder, a growth-minded individual might utilize a sturdy chair or box to stand on to achieve their goals. Even if the top shelf is still out of reach, the growth-minded individual has learned what doesn’t work and seeks another method for success.

Developing a Growth-Mindset Workplace

Luckily, we all have the ability to cultivate a growth mindset. It’s a way to see problems and skill gaps as obstacles that can be overcome with time, effort and persistence.

People with growth mindsets focus on the process involved in tackling challenges and the benefits of the learnings that come from failure. When leaders model and emphasize these attitudes, they help their team members maximize their potential, and organizational benefits follow. 

For obvious reasons, more and more companies are working to make a growth-mindset orientation part of their employee culture. Here are some of the big benefits of a growth mindset in the workplace.

Increased Perseverance

It took Thomas Edison about 1,000 tries to perfect the lightbulb. Imagine what the world would look like if he stopped after the first try?

We all want to get it right on the first try, but it takes many more than just one. A growth mindset is about achieving the best results from multiple iterations. This means encouraging team members to take educated risks without fear of failure or penalty.

Teach your team to try, then adjust based on their findings. 

Many experiments technically fail, but also lead to amazing results as people learn what not to do. By building the mental stamina to persevere, seemingly difficult tasks become easier. Your team won’t give up as easily, and as such are more likely to discover new and better ways of doing things. 

For example, if your sales rep travels to a far-flung client only to fall short on their sales pitch, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad salesperson. Even though they may have prepared thoroughly for a client meeting, there are instances where it just doesn’t work out. What’s important is to learn from the experience to improve the next pitch. 

A growth mindset reframes the entire situation to find the silver lining. Are there questions they can now anticipate for the next pitch, or communication skills they could sharpen?  

Promoting a growth mindset on your team means team members are more likely to tackle problems head-on, embracing them as interesting challenges.

Greater Creativity

Effective problem solving is to explore various avenues that can lead to success. It requires discipline, persistence and creativity. Creativity and growth mindsets go hand in hand. 

When stuck on a problem at work, posing the question “how can I…” has a different result than saying “I can’t do this.” Whereas one causes the mind to stop thinking, the other forces it to work harder to find alternatives.

As our brains engage in divergent thinking, we become more creative. Growth mindsets stimulate creativity by reframing situations to innovate through problems, rather than remaining complacent.

As employees experiment and brainstorm, there are ideas that may work and others that might not. In either case, creative exercises develop new neural pathways that can help solve future problems. 

The bottom line? A company that cultivates growth mindsets among its employees will always find ways to adapt and improve.

More Impactful Feedback

There’s no such thing as a truly negative consequence when you have a growth mindset. Every result that stems from action is seen as a step in the right direction. Leveraging constructive feedback is a powerful tool for sharpening a growth-oriented team. 

In the workplace, leaders can accelerate the growth of employees by giving them constructive feedback – feedback that is encouraging in tone and given in the spirit of supportive professional guidance.  

Constructive feedback requires transparent communication between those giving and receiving it, and highlights both strengths and weaknesses.

Celebrating successes and learnings, while recognizing that there’s always room for improvement, encourages true growth and motivates team members.

A Change in Perspective

Adopting a growth mindset is a powerful step in maximizing your potential at work and in life. In essence, it’s a change in perspective that acknowledges that growth is a journey more than a destination. 

So remember: success is not about how intelligent you are or what you know right now. It’s about the self-directed growth that comes from taking action and learning about your individual strengths and vulnerabilities.

Whatever you accomplish, you deserve to feel proud as you let your growth mindset guide you throughout your career. 

Ways to Create a Growth-Mindset Team

In leading and working with teams—whether they’re startups, groups of engineers, or global leadership—there are a few things that have stood out to drive success.

First, leaders and team members must be willing to “stand up” to lead or drive initiatives, and to “show up” consistently as doers who take action to drive progress.

Second, they have to be willing to do more work. This doesn’t mean more hours per se, but also means they have to work outside their comfort zones. Finally, they must be enthusiastically willing to learn and develop new skills.

This is how growth mindsets show up in real life. Harvard Business Review article (free registration required) by Carol Dweck offers a clear description of growth-minded people: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies and input from others).”

We have seen firsthand, collaborating with colleagues and RallyBright clients, proof of Dweck’s conclusion that when companies adopt this way of thinking, their employees are more empowered and committed.

The Resilience Connection

The research we’ve done on teams at RallyBright has shown that resilience is the defining characteristic of teams who achieve sustained high performance. By resiliency, we mean the ability to engage with opportunity, persist through challenges, recover quickly from setbacks, and learn from these experiences to move forward wiser and better.

To truly be resilient, teams need to possess the distinct and separate skills—those of direction, connection, adaptability, performance and attitude—that drive resilience.  

Cultivating a growth mindset is key to high performance and resilience, because it’s about attitude. A winning attitude starts with a hunger for constant learning and openness to new ideas.

Most teams we see who veer more towards a fixed mindset on the spectrum of fixed to growth would do better to more heartily embrace setbacks and failure, recognizing them as experiences necessary for building greater agility and deeper capabilities.  

So, how can teams get there?

Here Are Six Ways Leaders Can Help Drive a Growth Mindset

1. Develop growth-mindset team members

Teams won’t behave with a growth mindset just because they’re made of growth-mindset individuals. Teams are their own entity, and members collectively create the mindset of the team. However, teams typically don’t move to the growth zone unless the members have that mindset first. It’s a paradox, I know.

While some people are naturally more growth-oriented, I have also seen many individuals start with more of a fixed mindset and evolve towards growth. However, this transformation is gradual and anything but magical. It takes a conscious decision by the individual and leadership support. Everyone has to “show up” and do the work.

Here are three ways to encourage members of your team:

  • Request that team members set personal goals and be accountable for working towards and achieving them. They have to “stand up” and commit to growth.
  • Provide employees with the resources, such as training and networking opportunities, to learn new skills they need. Team members need to trust that they are supported.
  • Encourage and celebrate brainstorming and out-of-the-box thinking. Team members need to feel safe to speak up.

2. Hire from within

Harvard Business Review reported that companies with a fixed mindset culture tend to hire based on credentials and accomplishments. This typically means hiring people who think they are more talented than others.

These hires are often not happy in a team-based environment because they are not “the star.” Dweck recommends looking instead for people who love challenges and want to grow and collaborate.

It’s challenging to determine if someone has these characteristics, from glancing at a resume or during a 90-minute interview. Instead, look to fill open positions with current employees.

You know your team — their strengths, vulnerabilities and attitudes — and you know who demonstrates the attitude needed for a growth mindset. By promoting these types of people, enthusiasm and passion begin to filter down, leading to a growth-mindset organization as a whole. 

3. Help the team become a high-performance team

It’s impossible for a team to become a growth-mindset team if it remains a mere working group, rather than performing as a team. (We define a working group as a loose collection of individuals brought together by managers or other leaders to report on their respective businesses.)

Here are a few ways to encourage team development:

  • Have teams set their goals regularly.
  • Allow teams the flexibility to learn how to best operate as a unit.
  • Provide time, space and resources for teams to build relationships both inside and outside the work environment.
  • Encourage teams to celebrate wins.

4. Give teams permission to fail

Sometimes, in a growth-mindset team, things won’t work as planned. But people won’t be open to more growth-mindset behaviors if they’re worried about repercussions.

Brad Staats, of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, found that overemphasis on success is the main reason organizations don’t learn and grow—because focusing on success tends to lead to a fixed mindset. Encourage creativity and risk taking, and let the rest of the company see the process — not just the results.

One strategy that often works to create a risk-taking culture is to approach products and platforms as perpetual beta. Because betas are viewed as work in progress, experimenting and innovating are part of the process. This allows the team to experiment and improve on the idea in stages, which is often how organizations see big transformations.

As a leader, you already know that people are your biggest asset. When you build teams constantly moving forward with innovative thinking and agility, your employees become even more invaluable.

This is the sweet spot—the place where your employees are engaged and the company sees the highest success. It doesn’t start with sophisticated technology or complicated processes. Success starts at the basics—building a growth-mindset team.

5. Give growth-oriented feedback

When learning about how to be a good leader, it’s essential to understand the value of different types of feedback. Traditional employee performance evaluations lean heavily on success metrics like units sold or project completed on time. Yet, growth-oriented feedback allows employees to use failure as a stepping stone toward success. Constructive criticism is often the most effective tool to promote learning and encourage team members’ personal and professional growth. By creating a feedback-safe environment, both employee feedback and constructive feedback from leaders can help teams gain knowledge for increased growth and higher levels of success.

6. Experiment and encourage new strategies

Innovation is defined as a new method, idea or device. It’s generally considered a positive term in the business world and is associated with higher levels of success. The most successful teams innovate and experiment with different ideas and tactics, learning along the way until they hit upon winning formulas. Eliminate fixed mindset thinking by promoting the learning process as a vital part of reaching higher goals. When teams foster alternative views without the fear of failure, they can encourage collaboration and growth-oriented feedback to reach professional development goals.

Growth Can Be Uncomfortable, but It’s Worth It

Many companies today are embracing the theory of a growth mindset (or at least saying they are.) They use it in their internal documentation, mission statements, or make it part of their training and development. Often though, this is a shallow understanding that fails to grapple with the difficult parts of the concept.

Having a growth mindset is inherently not easy. It means confronting our own fixed-mindset behaviors, learning to admit mistakes, and dealing with the consequences of failure. It is, by nature, challenging.

This skill requires frequent re-appraisals and deliberate practice on the part of both individuals and teams. It’s not as simple as declaring that you have a growth mindset. As Dweck puts it: “the path to growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation”.

The results are worth it, though: employees at growth-mindset companies are happier, more innovative, and more willing to take risks.

Now that you’ve got a better grasp of what these critical terms mean, check out our advice on how to create a growth mindset team and start implementing these ideas in your workplace.

Need help understanding your team and how having a growth mindset can help them? RallyBright can help. Contact us for a demo.