Disruptive technologies, seismic demographic shifts and intensifying skills shortages means that now more than ever, the ability to continuously learn and adapt is a source of competitive advantage. Organisations are therefore keen to attract and retain employees considered ‘agile’ and ‘flexible’, placing a premium on behaviours like experimenting, acting on feedback and learning from failure. So why, when faced with the choice to step into our growth zone or shrink back into our comfort zone, do we chose the latter? While no doubt a range of individual circumstances and organisational culture play a part, there are some excuses for not learning that consistently bob up:

  1. I’m unwilling to take the risk (for fear of not looking good enough)
  2. I’m not prepared to admit that I don’t know (in case others call me out as an impostor)
  3. I need to be perfect and get it right the first time (my ego and need for control depend on it)
  4. I confuse knowing with having an opinion (like flying a plane)
  5. I’m impatient and addicted to quick fixes (reflection and deliberate practice sound like too much hard work)
  6. I prefer to know a little about a lot (without investing myself in the learning process)
  7. I doubt my ability as a learner (what if I give it my all and still don’t succeed?)
  8. I don’t think learning will make a difference anyway (what’s the point?)
  9. I don’t give you permission or the authority to teach me (who do you think you are?!)
  10. I’m too busy to learn (back-to-back meetings prove how necessary and important I am).

For those familiar with the work of Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, these excuses are tell-tale signs of a fixed mindset. When you operate from a fixed mindset you believe that your personal traits and qualities are predetermined and ‘carved in stone’. In other words, you assume that you are born to be good at some things and less so at others. Given you either have the ability or you don’t, success should come easily in areas where you do, rendering dedicated effort unnecessary. If the skills or talents you pride yourself on are shown up as lacking, your sense of self is threatened. To protect it, you're likely to look for opportunities to prove yourself, such as taking on jobs or projects that are well within your capability and avoiding feedback that might be developmental as opposed to glowing. In contrast, if you adopt a growth mindset, you believe qualities like intelligence are simply a starting point. Achievement and success come from your ability to learn and the hard work you are willing to put in, rather than raw talent alone.

Luckily, a fixed mindset is not fixed. Rather than an enduring trait, a fixed mindset is primed by the things that you tell yourself about the nature of learning and yourself as a learner, past experiences, cues from your external environment and messaging from the influential people in your life. To shift a fixed mindset to a more growth oriented one, try the following four steps:

Step 1: Learn to hear your fixed mindset ‘voice’ (self-talk). Clue: if your mouth curled up in a knowing half smirk-smile when you read any of the excuses above, it’s probably a sign you’ve been in fixed mindset territory before.

Step 2: Recognise (and ultimately accept) that how you interpret challenges, setbacks and criticism is your choice. You can choose to interpret them through a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

Step 3: Practice using a growth mindset ‘voice’. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this? What strategies can I use to deal with this challenge? What do I know now that I didn’t know six months ago? For more examples of what a growth mindset voice sounds like in action, read Quest Nutrition’s belief system (the organisation chose to go with this over a formal mission statement). The 25 points are just as much growth mindset mantras as they are behavioural expectations. I particularly like #5 and #6:

5. You can do ANYTHING you set your mind to, without limitation.

6. #5 is a lie. But it’s an empowering lie. We do and believe that which empowers us.

Find a growth-oriented statement that does it for you and repeat it to yourself every time you’re tempted to avoid something new, blame someone else for things not working out or feel bummed by someone else’s success.

Step 4: Take action. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes well (in an email sent to all staff) what embracing a growth mindset looks like:  

“It starts with a belief that everyone can grow and develop; that potential is nurtured, not predetermined; and that anyone can change their mindset. We need to be always learning and insatiably curious. We need to be willing to lean in to uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, recognising failure happens along the way to mastery. And we need to be open to the ideas of others, where the success of others does not diminish our own.”

Extending on this summary, taking action involves redefining challenges as opportunities, dissociating the need to improve from failure, thinking realistically about the time and effort it takes to learn and letting go of the need for approval. Upping your usage of the word ‘yet’ as in “I haven’t mastered that yet” is another strategy to try. If you get stuck on any of the four steps go back to the preceding one and take another shot. And lastly, do what you can to avoid excuse #11: “I’ve heard this all before”.

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Comment by James Pointon on January 19, 2017 at 18:25

Hi Justine,

I believe that number 8 is the one who stops most people from actually learning. They hit a certain level of knowledge, get a job, perhaps start a family and become stagnant. They don't believe that anything else can change in their lives, even if they focused on learning and gaining new skills and abilities. Sad, but true. I believe you have to stretch yourself the whole life as it helps your brain to remain active and healthy.

By the way, someone would have to be pretty stubborn to follow 9.

Thank you for sharing this post Justine, an interesting read.

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