Boss Lady

How to avoid the dangers of becoming a fixed mindset leader


 “In there there’s this very simple concept that Carol Dweck talks about, which is if you take two people, one of them is a learn-it-all and the other one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run, even if they start with less innate capability.” – Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft

As a leader you may have heard of the dangers of the fixed mindset. And the potential compound benefits of nurturing a growth mindset. But what do these actually mean?

Let’s start by defining the fixed mindset. This is where you consider everyone to be either superior or inferior. They either have “it” or they don’t have “it”. People are seen as either inherently talented or inherently untalented. This is a common world view and seems well and good until you start to look into the effect that it has.

The problem is many leaders start a new position with their mind open to learning. They nurture their skills and development because they want to adapt to the new role. But once they’ve got hold of the skillset well enough to get by, complacency by way of overconfidence transfixes them into a fixed mindset. They turn to doing their job, producing, delivering. Perhaps a little less open to different perspective, unfamiliar way of doing things, or receiving constructive feedback that don’t align with their point of view. Or sometimes ego comes into play and they adopt a mind-set where they are endlessly asserting their superiority or talent in their position.

From the outside this can at times seems driven and highly motivational. It can look like it gets results but this is a dangerous mindset to adopt. The costs down the line and on the organisation can be severe too. If everything becomes about constantly proving your own superiority, then your company is little more than a tool for you to use to prove what you want everyone else to see; blind spots go unchallenged or unrecognized mean potential missed opportunities; less inclusive culture means less innovation, creativity, empathy for diverse customer set, less engaged workforce etc.

From this mindset, you make decisions based on how you come across, not what is objectively best for the company. You start to get into competitiveness in an unhealthy way. Instead of being chances to personally grow and nurture the company’s growth, challenges and difficulties can lead to defensiveness and aggression. The problems don’t stop there, they fester and spread out into the culture of the company from the top down.

The root of the problem is this: having a fixed mindset encourages judgement and fear of judgement. It means you can be oversensitive to criticism because in this fixed mindset, it indicates that you are inferior. It means you can’t take responsibility, an essential characteristic of good leadership, because that also suggests that you are inferior. And it gets worse.

You cannot suffer being overtaken or shadowed, so you work hard to keep subordinates and coworkers down. This maintains your own relative superiority. This fear of judgment spreads through the company like fire. It goes on to create a blame culture because bosses fear judgment. Blaming others is an easy way to off-hand any criticism in an aggressive way to protect yourself.

This leads to a truly unhealthy work culture. Bosses make decisions and behave with the underlying goal of affirming their relative superiority. Eventually the workforce inherits the sole objective of pleasing or appeasing upper management. This leads to groupthink because the workforce has learned to fear judgement.

Groupthink is a negative culture where there is no dissent and no opposing voice. No one wants to risk putting themselves out there with their ideas or creativity because the culture has turned into one based on fear.

The solution is to nurture a growth mindset. This is made of a few fundamental beliefs:

  • Everyone has natural strengths and weaknesses
  • Everyone has massive potential for development in any area

Instead of a focus on natural talent, the focus is put on work, dedication and effectiveness in getting results. Everyone in the company understands that these are ingredients that create a huge force for individual and collective growth, change and progress over time. There’s a bias towards a belief that skills are learnable rather than a belief in inherent genius. Instead of assuming pre-made genius or lack of genius, natural superiority and inferiority, there is an understanding that learning and perseverance are far more effective currency.

In this culture, people do not fear criticism, they seek it in order to learn. They do not receive feedback as judgment but rather a constructive, useful learning tool that is a key part of progressing. Bosses and upper management are also seen as supportive resources rather than stern judges that are to be pleased.

A fixed mindset culture in comparison – fears, judges, penalizes mistakes. While growth mindset culture makes it ok, and even encourages people to make mistakes because they know that mistake is part of the path to mastery.

Fear of making mistakes is a big hurdle for many people and organisations to adopt a growth mindset. Because it can be ever so public and so much is at stake. Over at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio operates according to a principle he calls “radical transparency,” –  all meetings are public and employees can rate another co-worker on their app DOTS. This is meant to keep office politics from growing into actual problems, and new hires are encouraged to be completely candid with the company’s leadership.

Even more than this, leaders and the company can experience long term progress, maturity and development. With a growth mind-set you seek to draw the best potential from yourself and so you end up inspiring others around you to do the same. You create a healthy culture for synergy and creativity. One that’s robust enough to accept open constructive criticism and devil’s advocate arguments. Everyone seeks to rigorously examine the best way forward without sensitivity and without ego. It encourages perseverance and objective decision-making, rather than over reliance on inherent static ability.

The mindset of leadership has an enormous impact on the company. You can gain a lot from asking a few simple honest questions about where you’re at.

Are you in a fixed or a growth mindset?

Are you part of the problem?

Or do you create possibilities and solutions?

And can you make a positive impact on yourself and other by shifting your perspective?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Visit my website for powerful resources that help to improve leadership.

About Jacinta Quah

As Founder and CEO of JQ Coaching & Consulting, Jacinta Quah empowers high performing Tech leaders and teams to maximise excellence, results, potential and well-being. She has spent over 20 years building and managing geographically diverse teams inside some of the world’s biggest and most successful tech companies in Asia and North America, and have witnessed first-hand how team performance and individual excellence drive tangible business results. She is passionate about spreading the message that results and success do not need to come at the expense of health or happiness . As such, she blends leadership development and mastery with holistic wellness in an approach that is simple, effective and practical.

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