I am reflecting on the lessons I have learned during my time decade plus of working in the medical device industry for a very large company.
One of the observations is the way I respond to leaders who approach their work with entitlement versus those who aim to serve. The former set were wrapped up in a sense of “we are the winners” and they set up their organizations to demonstrate that. The latter approached from a more humble place of openness and willingness to learn.
Carol Dweck makes a powerful case for leaders and organizations who embrace a “growth mindset” versus a fixed mindset in her book Mindset: the new psychology of success. In summary, the person who believes they can grow and develop over time and with practice will far surpass the person who believes they are born with a fixed intelligence or talent. Children who are told they are smart, rather than the ones praised for their ability to work hard and persist, are actually at a disadvantage in the long-term.
I can relate to this principle and how it created a bit of an identity crisis when I first went to college. I had put in some hard work, but my belief was that I was “naturally smart” and this was how I identified myself. But going to a place like Swarthmore, where I was nowhere near the “smartest” and had not yet developed the academic work ethic I would need to succeed, I struggled, especially in my first year.
I called my parents one weekend to tell them that the college may have made a mistake in admitting me. I was not sure I could handle the work. But my mother reassured me – she knew I could do it if I worked hard. College was about challenging ourselves at a higher level. Thank goodness my professors agreed, and when I admitted to other students and to the professor that I was struggling, I realized I was not alone. I would have support in learning and growing if I was open to it.
The parallels in leadership intrigue me as I consider the effectiveness of those who believe they are the “smartest” in the room versus those who are open to learning from front-line employees. I respond best to those leaders who are open to feedback, who ask to hear my ideas. I want to contribute to their cause, because they see it as “our cause.” I want to figure out creative ways to help because I feel their belief in me. I want to learn and understand new things, because I know I will gain greater skills along the way.
When I consider my own responsiveness to feedback, I aim to improve my ability to take in criticism that can improve my performance in the long run. Though it can be hard to hear, when delivered and received in a spirit of mutual respect and investment in growth, it is a gift.
This applies to individual contributors also, not just managers. Those who are willing to learn from their mistakes are more willing to take risks rather than try to keep a perfect image as someone who never fails. If the environment is conducive to it, the growth-minded person will be unafraid to challenge the status quo. They will have courage to communicate what may be “blind spots” to leadership.
The research also shows how the growth mindset can be taught and coached, and is not something we are simply bestowed or lacking. This is fundamentally the philosophy I have embraced. I have seen so much evidence of this in my own work with colleagues over the years. To me there is nothing more rewarding than watching someone succeed at a “stretch” goal and knowing that maybe just a year or two before, they may have doubted their ability to achieve it.
Where do you want to grow? How strong is your belief that you will get there with practice and determination? What if difficulty just means “not yet”?