Key takeaways:

Adopting a growth mindset allows people to view abilities as developable through effort, turning challenges into growth opportunities.
Recognising and overcoming social and organisational pressures that inhibit creativity is crucial to a growth mindset.
To foster a culture of growth, it is vital to ‘unfix’ trapped mindsets, reward innovation, and promote curiosity and collaboration to create dynamic, resilient workplaces.

I once posed a question to a friend and colleague: are you the sum of your experiences? Or are you the sum of the possibilities you can create? Inside this question lie some fundamental particulars regarding growth mindsets – a philosophy where individuals believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Challenges become opportunities for growth, rather than obstacles to avoid, and encourage us to reach out and enable others.

Let us start with the ‘either-or’ perspective that has dominated thinking in recent times. A growth mindset is not a binary, have-or-have-not issue. Our minds are formed in ways that are often beyond our understanding. When you hear the expression ‘out of the box’, have you wondered how we know if we are in or out of the box in our thinking?

In many societies, we are socialised into making acceptances – acceptance of rules; of cultural or gender norms; of ways of behaving, thinking, and even dressing. We are socialised into these cultural conventions. For many, these normative ways of thinking and doing are rarely challenged. They may well evolve over time; however, the foundational norms often persist over long time periods. We can slip into the idea that perspectives are locked in and cannot change.

For many, the answer to my opening question is, yes, I am the sum of my experiences.

Does this mean we cannot all develop a growth mindset? Categorically not! We all have the capacity to believe and behave as if we are the sum of the possibilities we can create. So, how do we get there?

I believe there are three states of mind in this context. You may have read or heard of Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. These, whilst good principles, may not allow for our third kind, that of ‘trapped’ mindsets. I propose this third mindset as we cannot ignore the impact of situation or circumstance. Many of us work and live in environments that sometimes involve frustration-enforced compliance, fear of standing out, or the possibility of rejection if we do not conform to a required fixed mindset or cultural norm. My own research has shown that the linguistic strategies employed by people in positions of power can either liberate minds to grow or entrap them in a fixed state that limits freedom of action. Social pressure, coupled with the perceived inability to operate on and change the rules, accounts for many instances of fixed mindsets. Got a problem with lack of innovation or diversity of ideas in your organisation? You have a fixed organisation creating trapped mindsets.

So, what to do? There are ‘fixed’ organisations, packed with ‘fixed’ people that the organisation has ‘re-fixed’ to its own design in a world where creativity, originality, and new thinking are essential for success. It is little wonder so many are turning their backs on these employers and seeking more  flexible and liberating work environments.  

There are, I suggest, three steps to changing this issue. First, ‘unfixing’ the organisation. Secondly, making space for people to ‘unfix’ themselves. Thirdly, engaging with and enabling our clients and partners to ‘unfix’ themselves.

Let us turn to the organisation. How many rules, processes, and behaviours promote certainty and compliance, and, as a result, fixed ways of doing and thinking? How many of these can be changed? How much more could collaboration and good judgment be encouraged so that the right things are done for beneficial and sustainable reasons, replacing overbearing rules and boundaries? Think of how some organisations positively design creativity and disruption into their workplace and reward it. These are the employers that growth mindset people go to work for.

If we consider the organisation/employee interaction experience, we need to think about what people are rewarded for. Then, more importantly, what gets them into trouble and exposes them to negative feedback on their performance or attitudes? What do they assume is disallowed because informal leadership behaviours, whilst not present in written rules, impose personal informal ones instead? An organisation needs to find and eliminate any negative toxic behaviours that exist inside it, particularly in leadership and management behaviours. In their place need to come rewards for growth thinking, incentives for ‘I have a different idea’ conversations, and congratulations – positive and sincerely meant – for those who surprise their colleagues and leaders by changing what was once seen as untouchable. We need to create unfixed environments where creating and innovating is not an issue of demonstrating courage against the mainstream; it is baked into the mainstream.

Which brings us to the people. Growth comes when you have the wonderful realisation that you are free to choose. Let me propose some freedoms we should all grant ourselves.

Freedom one: Move from ‘I don’t want to know’ to ‘What don’t I know?’ There is always more, whether about a situation, a person, or an opportunity. Go, inquire, discover!

Freedom two: Move from ‘I don’t want to understand’ to ‘What am I not understanding?’ None of us know everything about anything. Move from black-and-white absolutism to discovery and listening. More comes from collaborative thinking than ever comes from mere individual compliance.

Freedom three: Move from ‘I am what life has made me’ to ‘I am all that I could be’. Of course, some things are more possible than others. But many more things are possible than you might think if you put yourself out there and go for it.

What will these freedoms grant you?

First, you will gift yourself growth. You will connect more because curiosity and collaboration allow minds to grow. They will enable you to problem solve and create because minds that think together grow in their critical ability and courage to change – and because an enquiring mind cares. A growth mindset orientation wants others to grow too. Bring all these things together, and organisations will change for the better. They will become positive, fluid places. Yes, they are more complex to manage, but they are more capable by far than their ‘fixed’ competitors. A growth mindset enables you to take steps forward every day. The journey is greater than the result because growth in your mind never ends.

Of course, what I have described in this last paragraph is the RSM DNA in practice. Caring, Courageous, Collaborative, Curious, and Critical Thinkers, by definition, are the epitome of the growth mindset. Can people be this way all the time? Not yet, and that isn’t the point. The point of a growth mindset is the journey because we are all on that journey, and the journey is the greater prize.