Better a Learner Than a Genius

People who are praised for being smart "don't want to risk their newly minted genius status," and that fosters static, rigid organizations. Praise for effort keeps people engaged and willing to work hard.
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This week sees the opening of the 6th NeuroLeadership Summit in San Francisco. The theme this year focuses on understanding the deeper biology that can help organizations of all types be more adaptive. One of the big questions we started with was "What beliefs should organizations hold about people," led by Carol Dweck, distinguished professor at Stanford and a leading expert on motivation, Carol explored the difference between explored fixed versus growth mindsets with Janet Van Huysse, HR leader at Twitter. The distinction, said Dweck, is that those of us with a fixed mindset see talent as a static trait, and those a growth mindset see it as a potential that can be developed.

Organizations can have fixed mindsets, too -- and in the war for talent, those that do are losing out on great people, said Huysse. As Dweck pointed out, trusting in the value of hard work and effort is not just a stronger predictor of success, but a much more powerful motivator.

"A fixed mindset doesn't tell you what to do next," said Dweck. "It provides no recipe for recovering from failures," which makes it tough to take on new challenges where stumbling is possible or even likely.

Van Huysse shared three of Twitter's ten core values she believes underlie its success: Seek diverse perspectives; recognize that passion and personality matter; and innovate through experimentation.

At the core of a growth mindset on talent is neuroplasticity -- the ability of the brain to reorganize itself with learning. It requires not just working at what you know, but pushing past into areas that stretch your knowledge and skills. A favorite quote of Dweck's: "Anyone who's never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

Mindsets are transmitted in an organization through a shared understanding of what's valued: being right or being open to learning. "We are very tuned in to messages about what will make people like and admire us. We're wired to pick this up," said Dweck. Praise for intelligence instead of praise for effort sends the wrong message. People who are praised for being smart "don't want to risk their newly minted genius status," and that fosters static, rigid organizations. Praise for effort keeps people engaged and willing to work hard.

Can organizations develop a growth mindset? Turns out the answer is yes. One research project did it by developing a workshop around mindset. It began with an article and video on how the brain grows with learning throughout life. Participants are then asked, "What's an area where you once had low ability but now perform quite well? How were you able to make this change?" or "Who is someone in your life who has dramatically improved their performance? How did they do it?" Participants were then asked to draft an email to an employee who was doing well and then struggled.

After the workshop, these managers exhibited more openness to critical feedback, willingness to mentor-and a higher quality of mentoring-and openness to the possibility of employees' changing.

People with growth mindset have greater awareness of mistakes and how to think them through. "You can't hand people self-esteem on a silver platter," said Dweck. "But you can equip them with mindsets that allow them to build self esteem themselves by taking on challenges and obstacles, by mastering things. That's the gift."

Carol Dweck, Ph.D, is a distinguished professor of psychology at Stanford University. Janet Van Huysse is Vice President of the HR team at Twitter.

To learn more about these presenters and their research, click here.

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