The Difference Between Failure & Success is a “Growth-Mindset”

Have you ever misperceived a situation because you were too stressed, angry with someone, or felt some bias from others?  Of course, we all have felt this way at one time or another. Such factors can cloud our thinking and rob us of our happiness. The good news is we can train ourselves to think rationally, clearly, and positively, no matter the situation.

The problem usually occurs when feeling overwhelmed, causing our self-confidence to suffer. We become less positive. We constantly communicate with ourselves through self-talk, and when we doubt our abilities, we set ourselves up for failure, and this invariably hurts our performance.  Getting stuck in that place of defeatism can now be tracked to how our mind functions.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that some people have a “fixed mindset” and believe that they cannot change their capabilities. Other people have a “growth mindset.” The growers believe they can work toward improving themselves. Dweck and her colleagues studied 373 students and tracked their academic performance from the beginning of seventh grade through the end of the eighth. They found that those with a growth mindset thought, “I can make this better”-which led to a rise in grade point average, while those with a fixed mindset remained the same.

The key to a growth mindset is to consider our ability as increasing, not static.  Consider a study that confirmed that if, before taking an IQ test, people read an article saying that IQ is changeable instead of fixed based on genes, their IQ scores improve.  This and other research validates the theory that simply believing change is possible makes change possible.

However, the world around us tends to counter this attitude with peoples’ opinions that state otherwise.  Those around us and the media we hear are brimming over with stories of failure. Around the water cooler at work — we talk about the failures and flaws of others.  In our jobs, we function from a limited perspective based on a negativity bias.  These negative thoughts impose a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.  In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on our behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative.

This kind of negativity bias may be comforting when shared with others of similar opinions, but it doesn’t constitute leadership. Leadership requires much more. It starts with taking on a growth mindset in figuring out what should be done — to make things better.

I once worked with Aaron, a vice president of a healthcare company, who was faced with a performance problem, and he was trying to make sense of what had gone wrong.  Aaron had been working on the launch of a new pharmaceutical for his company. He was the lead member of a multifunctional launch team.  The team was charged with developing a launch plan to primary care physicians and managed care markets. This new drug was vital to Aaron’s company, because the market share of several of its core pharmaceuticals was eroding due to patent expirations.

Each member of the launch team was assigned one aspect of the new pharmaceutical and its execution to the market. Aaron’s primary responsibility was to focus on getting the drug on formulary with key customer groups. After several weeks of work, he came up with a detailed plan for making the drug available to managed care markets, drugstores, and physicians.

The project team met once a week, with each member of the team reporting on his or her area of responsibility.  Aaron’s supervisor, the division president, wanted each team member to learn about each other’s assignments, and thereby produce a more effective launch strategy.  Aaron, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that he was doing things right from the perspective of the company’s leadership, which to him meant: “Make no mistakes.”

Initially after creating an execution plan, Aaron was very pleased with his work on the launch project saying to me, “I thought I did a very good job.”  However, when Aaron was tasked with presenting his plan to the Board of Directors, several members of the Board roundly criticized his proposal. They felt his team’s plan did not adequately target the most important customers who might benefit from the new drug.

Aaron was shaken. After the meeting, the division president took him aside and asked Aaron how much he really understood about the new pharmaceutical being launched. “I’ve done my research,” Aaron replied, “and I’ve listened to our science team.” If that was true, the president asked, how could he be so out of alignment with the leadership team regarding the drug’s positioning?

Aaron maintained his stance that he had done everything possible to create an effective plan, which exasperated his supervisor all the more. As Aaron’s coach, I urged him to think about how he could adopt a growth mindset in order to make the project a success.  He called me a few days later to say, “I should have owned my responsibility instead of making excuses, and then move forward by expanding the team’s scope to do more than what our competitors’ had already done in the marketplace – to make this launch better than any we had ever done.”

Aaron proceeded to interview his team members and other key stakeholders within the company, and then applied his broad skills and talents to think through every aspect of the drug’s positioning. He even conducted some of his own research with key opinion leaders within the industry, uncovering how competitive drugs were being positioned, and what would make physicians change their prescribing habits. After doing all this work, Aaron began to realize that his initial recommendations were from a fixed mindset, based on traditional approaches the company had used with less than stellar results in times past.

Aaron realized that he had learned something valuable from this experience. His success was confirmed when his supervisor told him, “Aaron, now you’re acting like the leader we all expected you to be.  Define your job broadly, rather than narrowly.”

Aaron promised himself that in the future, he wouldn’t think like a narrow functionary, but instead approach his work from a growth perspective. Aaron’s new growth mindset helped expand his ability to breakthrough existing paradigms through a new prism for assessing his thinking.  And, the net result was the company’s most successful launch ever thanks to Aaron’s renewed approach with the task force.

Many leaders limit themselves through a fear-based approach that defines future results based on past convictions. Having a negative bias they fail to take into account key considerations that are crucial to making a good decision for fear of failure. Each of us has blind spots, may be prone to ideological points of view, or may be unaware of our own subtle biases. As a result, we each need to view success as an inevitable outcome, overcoming our bias to consider alternative ideas while growing forward, better than before.

So allow me to ask you this question: “What areas of your life do you need to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?” One approach to counteract any self-doubt is to consciously note your thoughts—either physically write them down or make mental records of how you talk to yourself. Then look for habits of thought, repetitive stories, or words that feed into a negative narrative.

Assess the validity of the narrative. Is it rational or imagined? Ask for feedback from others to confirm or refute questions about performance. If your negative thoughts tell you that you are not up to the job or an undertaking, then benchmark against others who are in similar positions, or who have succeeded in ways similar to what you expect of yourself and compare your qualifications to the actual standards required of the job or task.

Sometimes your personal bias may inflate your impression of others, so clarify the (measurable) requirements of whatever needs to be accomplished. If they are not met, adjust the performance. If they are being met or are tracking toward completion, that’s success!

If you’ve established clear requirements, and you are doing your best to meet them, then anyone with a fair perspective should view your work positively. If not, those naysayers are being unfair and you need to accept that as their bias, not as your reality. You need to keep telling yourself the truth to turn your negative thoughts into positive ones.

For irrational feelings of failure, you can tell yourself things like, “I am competent at this. I have worked diligently to meet the requirements. I will succeed.” If someone or something outside of your control feeds into the negative narrative, you can tell yourself things like, “Fair people will recognize my success. I am not going to believe irrational criticism.”

Positive assertions turn our self-speak into a positive narrative, enabling us to succeed because of ourselves – and, that’s a growth mindset!

– Randy Kay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *