Nigel Cassidy: Is your place held back by too many know-it-alls from the boardroom downwards? It may be time to adjust your mindset. I’m Nigel Cassidy, and this is the CIPD podcast.
Now, tune in to a few TED Talks or mindfulness seminars and you’ll probably discover that what you really, really want is, ta-da, a growth mindset. This is the belief that you could achieve far more, you can grow your talent and maybe even your intelligence through effort and learning. Doesn’t everybody believe that? Well, seemingly not. Our guests today hold that fixed mindsets have a lot to answer for in the workplace. So, is this yet more pseudo-business psychology or can some useful science be deployed here to boost your business and the people who make it?
With us, Isabel Duarte, Head of Leadership Development for Tucows. She has deep experience in talent development and mindfulness initiatives, much of it gained in the tech world. Isabel, hello.
Isabel Duarte: Hello.
NC: And Helen Deavin is the MD of Matthew Syed Consulting, recognised by the British Psychological Society for its work helping organisations to benefit from growth mindsets. And hello, Helen.
Helen Deavin: Hello.
NC: Now, Helen, all I really know from research before this podcast is that a psychologist from Stanford University first made a distinction between outcomes when minds were open to self improvement and when they were just fixed.
HD: That’s correct, yes. So Carol Dweck wrote her first paper back in ’99 from Stanford University and introduced the whole concept of fixed versus growth mindset. So really looking at people’s attitudes, behaviours and beliefs, and how they can help them in terms of their personal life and their working life, or how they can actually hold them back and hold back their potential.
NC: And Isabel, I don’t know if this is controversial, because I was quite surprised that Carol Dweck’s work even suggests that actual intelligence can be boosted by learning and development. Now, I was always taught, I always believed that intelligence IQ was fixed, largely dependent on genetics.
ID: Absolutely, it is not controversial, it’s been proven by science that neuroplasticity is a wonderful thing that allows our brains to adapt and to learn, and to actually physically change as we are practicing certain skills or learning new skills.
NC: So Helen, it would seem we don’t have sufficient of this plasticity. If I’ve got this right it, kind of, matters because if people have fixed mindsets at work then they won’t think it’s worth the effort to try and change themselves or nurture others, come to that.
HD: Well, yes, it’s all about your thoughts, your words, and your actions. So the thoughts you have in your head very much manifest themselves in terms of the language, the words you use, and the behaviours and actions that you demonstrate. And what we look at and what we work with people to understand more is where they have more fixed mindset views around certain things that might be holding them back. So they may not want to get out of their comfort zone. They may not want to try new things because they might have a huge fear of failure and they don’t want to look silly in front of others. And that can hold them back in terms of their ability to learn, as Isabel was saying. Growth mindset is all about opening yourself up to new experiences, to learn and grow from them.
NC: Now, Isabel, I know you’ve worked a lot in the tech sector and this is one of them, along with finance, where you have, kind of, talent don’t you? You have stars, they often get treated better than the rest, and there isn’t a, kind of, great desire necessarily to grow your next people. So maybe there is something in this idea of cultures not being very open to people progressing.
ID: Yeah, I think we do have some people, some individuals who are stuck in their own way and who have been applauded so much, are very good at their particular skill set, that they came to a point where they don’t think that they need to change. But that’s why we need leadership that believes in growth mindset. Leadership that is going to come in and show that there is a benefit to it, that there’s, that having this openness, like Helen was saying, this openness and this curiosity and the self awareness can allow us to develop, and grow, and be happier, and be more functional, and have better teams.
NC: So Isabel, can you give me some examples of where a lack of this kind of open mindedness, curiosity I think you like to call it, causes a problem in organisation in terms of how people are managed and how things get done?
ID: Yeah. As a manager, if you have a fixed mindset you’re going to be a lot more prone to seeing failures as something that can’t be avoided. And you’re not going to have the skill to treat it as something that you can learn from, that your team can learn from. It might cause some difficulties with change as well, because you are in this mindset of feeling like you know everything as it is, and being a little less open to adopting new behaviours.
NC: Do you think people know they’re doing this?
ID: I think by, and I wanted to hear what Helen thinks about this as well, but I think that by nature, someone with a fixed mindset won’t necessarily be aware that they’re in a fixed mindset because that’s the whole point.
HD: I completely agree with Isabel. We start with that self awareness piece because as your question asked before, people aren’t necessarily aware that they have fixed mindset views and that’s one of the reasons we develop the psychometric, because then people can take the diagnostic, they can measure it, measure themselves against this, the nine behaviours and six culture characteristics that we have. So --
NC: So this is a piece of work that you’ve put together which obviously people who are your clients can get, but I mean, is this something any organisation can do for itself using tried and tested techniques?
HD: I think back to Isabel’s point, it’s quite difficult for you to be self aware of whether you have fixed mindset views about certain things because it comes based on your experiences, your background, you know, how you’ve grown up, how well you’ve done at work, how well you’ve done at education. You can be holding yourself back. So what we do is we work with clients, exactly as Isabel said, is to start with that self awareness. Am I operating in a fixed mindset way? And then the second question is, is it holding me back? Sometimes it may not hold you back. It may not be impacting the outcomes that you want to achieve. But it is most likely that it is holding you back and therefore we work with clients to show them how they can switch from fixed mindset to growth mindset.
And what I’d like to pick up on here is a phrase that actually has been coined by a great company out there that I think really shows the power of growth mindset, is Microsoft. And Satya Nadella, the CEO, talks about switching from being know-it-alls to being learn-it-alls. And I think that really encapsulates the power of growth mindset. Being open to learning whether you are a graduate, whether you are an apprentice, or whether you are a CEO, continuing to learn and grow is so critical.
NC: Isabel, you have a lot of these difficult conversations with people when you’re trying to help them open their minds. I know you go a bit more into the, sort of, mindfulness area as well. But just talk us through how people feel when they’re almost confronted with the fact that, for example, they don’t give people very good feedback or they don’t see the possibilities or the promotion potential of people?
ID: It’s definitely a delicate conversation and a delicate topic to approach. When I’m having this conversation with someone I try to, and I know I’ve said this word several times, but I bring up curiosity. Because curiosity is a term that isn’t loaded, whether positive or a non positive or a negative way. So if you tell someone, can we look at this with curiosity, they’re not going to think that I’m attacking them. And it’s a lot easier to have that softness around it and to just let a little bit of space come in, a little bit of breathing room to analyse a situation and try to have some objectivity about it. Try to see where they might be holding themselves back, like Helen was saying. Try to even have some humility. I think humility’s a big aspect of the growth mindset and just this approach of being open to re-appraising, to re-evaluating how you’re reacting to something. So I try to bring those, I try to first open the conversation. Let the person soften a little bit and make them understand this isn’t a confrontation, and then mention some practical ways in which they can re-evaluate how they’re responding. And I’m sure Helen has very specific, measurable ways that she brings in as well, so I would love to hear that.
HD: Yes, we do. And I think, just picking up on what you were saying, Isabel, first of all though, what I love is seeing a leader, sort of, self correct themselves halfway through a sentence when they’re communicating. That is a great example of self awareness. Where they’re starting off with a fixed mindset view and they, sort of, realise halfway through and switch it to be more growth mindset orientated. And yes, we have, our research has led that we’ve identified, working with Carol Dweck, nine behaviours and six cultural characteristics that we’re able to measure and define, orientated around growth mindset. And that’s where we also help them, because you’re right Isabel, so much, it’s a very tricky conversation. And so, we let the diagnostic help with that self awareness as well. To be driven a little bit by data.
NC: So is this really fixed, Helen? Is there any argument about this? Are you actually saying that people who tick these boxes are open minded, people who don’t are not?
HD: In my opinion, it’s not about being a fixed or growth mindset person. Everyone has fixed mindset views about certain aspects of their life and growth mindset views about other aspects. And that’s what makes it so complicated. That’s what also makes it so helpful for people to understand. Because again, it’s OK to have a fixed mindset perspective, but if it’s holding you back then we’re showing you ways that you can change it to open up those opportunities to change things. Change your behaviour, change your outcomes.
NC: But of course, changing organisations as a whole is very difficult. And I just wonder, Isabel, is this not really, when we’re talking about growth mindset, essentially something for the individual about personal growth? Is it reasonable that an entire organisation and HR people in particular, will have the ability to change how people view the world essentially, that’s what we’re saying, isn’t it?
ID: I think it is reasonable because this isn’t a, basically what we’re teaching is a way of thinking or a quality of learning. It’s not necessarily changing who they are as individuals or demanding that they become these corporate drones that fit in a specific box, right? There’s something to be said about teaching people new skills that they can use, whether it’s in their workplace or whether it’s in their home life, if they want to learn how to be a better surfer or how to be a better cook, or how, whatever it is, if you have an approach of understanding that you can learn, that you can improve, your life can be so much more rich if you’re, you have that openness.
NC: And Helen, what is your experience of HR people when they get involved in this process? Do they find it difficult to deal with these kind of issues, which are not straight forward, they’re not the sort of things that you can go through, you know, box ticking exercise, whatever.
HD: I agree, it’s definitely not a box ticking exercise, and our experience has been really positive around working with our HR and L&D clients. Because they’re grappling with this every day. They’re grappling with how to change those behaviours that reflect on their organisational purpose and goals, and the values that they’re looking to instil. And that’s more and more important, as all the research shows about, you know, being purpose led organisations and having clear values that you want to be able to reinforce what you’re looking to achieve. So we find, you know, working with our partners in this space, we very much partner with them to help them be part of that change process and help that organisation measure and achieve those goals as well. So it’s critical to be working with them, it’s, they’re a key part of the sponsorship of driving these sort of programmes and driving these sort of levels of change.
NC: This might seem a bit fatuous, but who are the hardest people to convince and change in terms of their mindset? Is it the people running the company? The board? The very senior people? Or is it the rank and file, maybe?
HD: Oh, goodness, great question. I’d love to hear what Isabel thinks about this and her experience. I don’t think you can say it’s a specific level in the organisation. And that’s the beauty of this. You really don’t have a good understanding until you start to dig into this with people around what their mindsets are and how they manifest themselves. Because, as I say, it’s built on the experiences that every individual has and that’s very different. So personally, I couldn’t categorise it, but I’d love to hear Isabel’s view, maybe you’ve got a different perspective.
ID: No, I completely agree. I completely agree. It depends so much. I think it also depends so much on how we are brought up as kids. You know, if your parents encourage failure as a way to learn, for example, that’s going to make you a lot more prone to seeing, to destigmatising failure and being open to failure being a source of growth. So I completely agree, it’s very hard to pinpoint specific sectors or specific types of roles that are in this.
NC: So Helen, you’ve talked about you do the psychometric testing, the work you do with people to show them what their qualities are and what they might be missing. How does the thing continue going on and how do you work out whether you have changed, if not the entire culture of the organisation, then certainly you’ve made people more curious, more willing to try new things?
HD: So, yes, so measurement is a key part for us and we do measure obviously at the beginning with the psychometric and then we look to see different markers throughout the programme as to whether we’re making an impact on individual and team’s practices and their behaviours. One of the things we look for early on, and one of the things that we see changes is leaders’ confidence in their ability to tackle complex and ambiguous situations. And we know that is something that very much is characteristic with a fixed mindset. And what we look as part of our programme is to see is the first milestone, are we increasing that confidence? We then look to say, how is that confidence then affecting business outcomes? How can we connect those practices and techniques to solving those problems they’re trying to tackle? So yes, that’s the sort of thing that we look for and that’s what drives that cultural change.
NC: And with regard to the tech companies that you work with, Isabel, can you say a bit more about what you find when you start working with people and what results you can achieve?
ID: It’s interesting, because Helen has the approach, the broader approach of tackling the company as a whole and then identifying the things that we want to measure, and my actions are more on the ground, I guess you would say. I work directly with leaders. At Tucows I was Head of Leadership Development. I run the leadership programme and the coaching programme, so I coach the leaders directly on the specific areas that they want to grow and that they want to set as goals. And even if one of the goals that they mention in terms of their development and coaching isn’t outspokenly expressed to be, I want a growth mindset, there is always an element of growth mindset that comes to the coaching process and to the coaching transformation. So this is always a part of my work whether the person knows it or not. so --
NC: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
NC: Is it very high up the agenda in terms of how people want to better themselves, if you like?
ID: It is in the way that if, without wanting to change or without realising that change is possible, you’re not going to change, right? So as part of the coaching process, you have to have someone who feels like change is possible, who has the faith in changing and in evolving. So it is a crucial aspect of it.
NC: So Helen, what might be the difference between a company which has a pretty fixed mindset and one where things have been opened up? I mean, what are the sort of things that we might notice if the process in improving people’s mindsets worked?
HD: So I think typically what our clients are looking for and what they’re achieving is more innovative approaches to solving problems. So they tend to be more in that market leadership space, they tend to be commanding the way that the sector is run or the different client requirements. The way they, again, the way they solve problems. So that innovation, that agility, that boldness, that braveness to do things in a different way, because internally, they’ve been taking the time to experiment and hypothesise around different ways of doing things. They’ve learnt from their mistakes and that’s what we’re looking for is that continual evolution in terms of how they serve their clients, the language that they use, the way they approach it. So again, it’s also organisations where maybe their sector is facing a massive paradigm shift and they know that they need to change their behaviours internally to respond to that paradigm shift as well. So it’s those factors which keep them really ahead of the game in that sense.
NC: Isabel, I’ve heard it said that companies that have a rather fixed mindset are very prone to more people, kind of, cheating, competing with each other for positions, a certain amount of deception, trying to gain an advantage, particularly when it comes to promotion.
ID: I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation but it doesn’t surprise me if there is. In a company that fosters the growth mindset like Helen was describing, there will always be a sense of, I was going to add this on to what you were saying, in a company like that you’ll also feel like people are happier at work because there is the sense of evolution and growth and not, like, again, being a drone and coming in and doing the exact same thing from 9:00 to 5:00. Because you are looking for ways to change and for ways to grow and that’s part of your core tasks. So I really think that the entire company culture, it can be completely different if it’s fostered in this way.
NC: But of course, Isabel, there are some people who might actually, the truth is they don’t really want to grow in a particular job and they might actually be desperately unhappy. You can’t force people to be excited can you, if they don’t want to be?
ID: Exactly. And that’s part of the beauty of this work is that you’re going to bring growth to a setting and to a group of people that you, yourself, as a coach, you can’t be fixed on the growth that you expect from the people you’re working with. So I have an example of, a very specific example of someone I worked with years ago and she was a people manager in a sales team at the time. And I was brought in to coach her and there were some issues with performance, and throughout her coaching work together she came to realise that actually she, all she wanted was to own a flower shop. And that put me in a very peculiar situation of having to justify to her leadership that they had brought me in to coach her and all of a sudden they’re like, hang on a minute, we wanted her to do better and now all of a sudden she wants to leave.
So, you know, it was a matter of, again, explaining that this is part of the process. If we are wanting growth, you know, you have to walk the talk. If you are professing growth and trying to have this mindset for yourself, then you need to accept that that growth might end up showing that the people are on a different path and that they’re happiness lies elsewhere. So it’s definitely a job that always has surprises and that’s the beauty of it.
NC: And Helen, what does that story tell you?
HD: What that tells me is, first of all, what a wonderful client because they’ve really embraced growth mindset and they’ve, and one of the things that we know is that organisations that embrace growth mindset tend to have high levels of trust and psychological safety. And that really encourages people to flourish and grow individually but also share their beliefs and follow their dreams, like Isabel just gave that example.
NC: So we’re almost at the end of our time. To sum up, can each of you then make just a quick final case for acting on people’s mindsets and, sort of, getting them as healthy as possible? Helen, what are the benefits to an organisation?
HD: Well, I think really it’s about unlocking that potential, whether it being your personal life or your work environment, at that individual, that team, and that organisational level, and being able to, again, change your mindset, change your behaviours, change your attitudes, change your language, and therefore change your outcomes. And if that’s what you’re looking to achieve, then I would say growth mindset is something that is really worth understanding more about and looking at how it can help you unlock that potential.
NC: And I suppose people who are in that zone are, sort of, worrying less about looking smart, putting more energy into their learning?
ID: Yes, definitely. And they will have a lot more things to be excited about, to be interested about, and to want to dedicate their attention to. And there’s nothing but joy to be had from fostering a growth mindset.
NC: OK. Well, if people have taken on board some of these points there’s going to be some interesting conversations between HR and the people they look after in the near future. Let me thank our brilliant guests, Helen Deavin, Managing Director at Matthew Syed Consulting, and Isabel Duarte, Head of Leadership Development for Tucows.
Last month we were talking about what post Covid employees expect to need to stop them leaving. Tom Gibby, founder of The Bot Platform says we should say goodbye to the great resignation and embrace, he says, the great adaptation. It’s a last gasp for the Boomer generation bosses whose identity is tied up with the workplace.
And Neil Crofts, co-founder of the Holos Change Consultancy has a little plan. Identify red lines, he says, like mentoring juniors, setting common times to be in the office and having no-one work for direct competitors. Then, he says, negotiate freedom to work flexibly with people on a case-by-case basis. Great to get that feedback, thank you very much indeed. Oh, he also says make your office really attractive with more cafes, fewer workstations and town hall meetings. Certainly agree with that.
So do go back and have a listen to that first show of 2022 if you didn’t catch it and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss one. Until next month, from me, Nigel Cassidy and all of us here at the CIPD, it’s goodbye.