Work lessons from my experiences in hi-tech

How I Cultivate a Growth Mindset at Work [Work Lessons]

Photo by Ales Maze on Unsplash

Background

I’ve had the opportunity to work as an Organizational Psychologist consultant to the Head of the Human Resources Department in an organization with thousands of employees. In this context, I have had access to top leadership, and learned from each interaction. This experience, along with an M.Sc. and pursuing supplementary specialized coursework, has taught me how to approach this topic, which I now currently try to implement in my day-to-day work context.

Overview

This article explores what a growth mindset is, and where it comes up at work- professional challenges, Collaboration between non-technical & technical colleagues, overcoming colleagues’ fixed mindset perception of one’s abilities, general Internal monologue, language of colleagues, and growing through silent colleagues. Identifying these use cases at work can contribute to cultivating a growth mindset.

What’s a growth vs. fixed mindset?

In broad strokes, a growth mindset focuses on the potential of humans and human capacity. This can be about one’s self, or about others. As explained in detail in this Harvard Business School Article, it’s the belief that

ability and intelligence can be achieved through effort

A fixed mindset, on the contrary, presumes that what is is what will be; a human has the capacity and skills for something, or does not. You’re smart or you’re not. Brilliant, or never will be.

This conceptual framework developed by psychologist Carol Dweck has significant implications for one’s professional progress, and — arguably much more importantly — for education. In this article I focus on adults at work.

Cases at work

Cultivating and maintaining a growth mindset in the workplace takes effort and attention. Below I share opportunities for doing so, and the associated benefits.

Professional challenges at work

One school of thought warns ‘don’t bite off more than you can chew.’ At the other pole, are the folks like David Allen who argue that ‘you can do anything — but not everything.’ I follow Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi’s model presented in his book ‘Flow’.

Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi’s model that leads to flow

It’s worth a deeper study, but in broad strokes it says to grow, you need to find that place where you’re challenged a bit beyond your current skills, so that you learn new ones. When you have way more challenge than skill, you end up frustrated and anxious- it really is too tough for you. And when you have way more skill than challenge, you end up bored. It’s too easy. Since our level of skill improves when we rise to the right level of challenge, we get bored, and so then must up the challenge level, as we learn and grow.

Considering this model, we really should bite off a bit more than we can currently chew, but then we had better chew it, until we swallow, digest a bit, and then take an even bigger bite.

What does this have to do with growth mindset? It is necessary to believe in one’s growth in order to accept and pursue challenges that really are outside of one’s current comfort zone. A person who has a fixed mindset — who has an accurate depiction of her skill level and is convinced it will not change— will hesitate to accept a challenge that requires a higher level of skill. Combine these considerations with the trouble humans have assessing our own abilities, and the equation gets even more complicated. But the takeaway here is the awareness that it is possible tomorrow to achieve more than you can today — you will actually grow. There is something to the ‘you’ll rise to the challenge’ aphorism.

Collaboration between non-technical & technical colleagues

My formal education is not technical, and in the context of hi-tech, this has made me feel inferior to those with strong technical backgrounds and skills. This fixed mindset — that I am not technical, therefore not capable of contributing to technical aspects of work — has held me back. Previously, I have hesitated to offer proposals and ideas, to brainstorm, with the fear that my ideas were impractical or not feasible, and would be shot down. With ongoing internal work, I’ve managed to overcome self-induced barriers to my education, and studied technical matters that were relevant to my work. Doing so made me able to make progress in both my technical acumen, and my ability to contribute. Sometimes my ideas are still shot down, but I have learned to accept this ‘rejection’ as part of life and work, and continue to try. I view making repeated attempts as actually part of implementing a growth mindset, because I improve with each attempt. Like the quote attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky:

You fail 100% of the shots you don’t take

Eventually, I have been able to make concrete contributions to technical challenges.

The inverse perception-busting is also present. I’ve caught myself internally dismissing a technical colleague’s point of view about items that were in my domain of responsibility, since I had pigeonholed his abilities as being limited to technical domains. At times, I’ve been able to overcome this rigid perspective, and shifted my mind to be able to make room to authentically be receptive to said colleague’s ideas. And at times, they are awesome.

Overcoming colleagues’ fixed mindset perception of my abilities

I have noticed that initial rejection of ideas or refusal to seriously consider them are not always a function of my ignorance, but are sometimes a factor of a colleague’s initial inability to move beyond a fixed mindset of how they perceive me. The inhibiting fixed mindset can be that of the technical counterpart. They may also have this bias — that someone who ‘is not technical’ cannot contribute ideas that push forward technical solutions. Additionally, if their initial impression of you is not one of veneration, then it may be hard for them to accept that you have grown & improved. This bias is possible to overcome within one’s self, and it is possible to overcome when the colleague has the fixed mindset. I’ve experienced it. A colleague may initially respond ‘no, that won’t work’, and then, when I calmly but firmly press on and insist that, ‘ok, let’s just consider for a second what if…’ we progress together. Beautiful ideas and solutions have come out of brainstorms of this sort, where we both can move past our preconceived notions of the limitations of job descriptions.

General Internal monologue

Much ink is already spilled about the importance of how language shapes perception. The voice in one’s head- internal monologue- influences our self-perception. For instance, when I make a stupid at work- a miscalculated response to an email, a dumb question during a recorded demo, or even spilling some coffee — I am met with an internal barrage of vitriolic disparagement that would make any pirate wash his ears. This, clearly, is not helpful. Instead, over time, it is possible to train one’s self to use internal language that is more aligned with a growth mindset — that frames the faux pas as a minor blip in the path of learning, as paying some fees to the school of life. Internal reframes — whether they happen during the event or after — better position me to continue to learn, despite these growing pains.

Language of colleagues

Cultivating awareness about colleagues’ language that reflects either fixed or growth mindset has helped me adopt and maintain a growth mindset. For instance, when colleague A complained that ‘colleague B is _______’, I am able to identify the statement as fixed. I am able to tease apart colleague B’s action that was ______ vs. accepting that his actions necessarily reflect immutable capabilities. I can then ask colleague A why she thinks that about colleague B? As we tease this out, we can reframe how we collectively think about colleague B, and leave room for shifting perceptions.

Grow through ‘silent’ colleagues

Everyone participates in group meetings. Even those who say nothing. Sometimes, especially those who say nothing. Body language, facial expressions, breathing — can reveal that a person is experiencing strong emotions. So I try and take note of colleagues, and when I have the clarity of mind and mental space, I ask them about it. I do so for myself as much as for them. Often they are willing to share what they are feeling and why, and it is interesting and expands the scope of what I previously considered. Sincerely pursuing these silent colleagues probably doesn’t strictly fall into the purview of the definition of having a growth mindset, but it does force myself to make room for views that aren’t status quo and stretch my brain to be receptive to considering unpopular opinions.

Recap

We’ve explored a growth vs. fixed mindset, and cases where this is relevant in the workplace. By noticing these scenarios, we can foster the mindset that will propel us forward, to where we want to be.

Thanks for reading!

About the Author

I’m a UX Designer turned Product Manager, with experience in startups, freelance, and agile B2B2C companies. Writing helps me reflect & continuously learn. Connect with me on Twitter.About this series

About this series

This is part of a series on Work Lessons based on my experiences.

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Ron A

Ron A

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UX Designer turned Product Manager & Owner with experience in startups, freelance, B2B2C companies & agile. Writing helps me learn faster. @RonChirp on Twitter