Developing a winner’s mindset to thrive

David McCrae | 25th August 2016

Do you feel that you are never going to improve in your work? Do you shirk from scenarios where you think you will be judged? Do you try to associate with people less skilled, intelligent, productive, charismatic or creative than you? This likely represents that you possess a Fixed Mindset, and it is crippling your chance for success and wellbeing in the workplace. Don’t feel bad, this is the mindset that has been bred in most of us. Luckily, I’m going to outline how to switch to the opposite mindset: the Growth Mindset.

Carol Dweck is the psychologist who can be credited with identifying and analysing these two mindsets. She identified that people with the fixed mindset believe that our talents and attributes cannot change, and that these talent and attributes reflect our quality as a person. People with a fixed mindset can’t stand failure, because for them that threatens the integrity of their character. They will only ever seek out easy tasks and situations where they can rely on talent to look good.

What I want you to understand is that this is a false perception. Our brain is like a muscle. We do not stay stuck with the same characteristics for our whole lives. The more we work at something, the better we get at it. That applies for everything: not just skills but your very personality. You want to become more confident, creative or compassionate? You can improve all of those. Failure does not threaten your integrity as a person, it demonstrates your willingness to learn and grow. And that is why this mindset is called the growth mindset.

Let me illustrate two famous sportsmen who had very different mindsets. The first was John McEnroe. His catchphrase is and was “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS”. You see McEnroe had a fixed mindset. He believed that his talent indicated his quality as a person. So when things were going bad, what did he do? He blamed everything and everyone: umpires, weather conditions, illness, media pressure, something he ate, not being in love (yes really!). Anything to divert the reasoning that if he had used all his ability, and still not won, then that indicated he was not a good tennis player. He lost in a doubles match early in his career, and didn’t play doubles for another 20 years, because he could not stand the feeling of failure.

Let’s instead look at Michael Jordan. The man famously dropped from his high school basketball team who then went on to earn his place as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. See Michael said at the end of his career:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost nearly 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

See Michael was all about learning. When he was cut from that high school team, he dedicated himself to improving his weaknesses: his defence and jump shot. When his team lost a game, he scrupulously analysed where he could’ve done better and it was that skill that he practiced the next training session. When Michael recognised room for improvement, he didn’t shirk from it, he confronted it. He was able to separate his failure from his personal identity.

So how can we transform our mindset. How can we become a little less McEnroe and a little more Jordan?

1. Avoid Fixed Adjectives

When we use adjectives such as “smart” or, “skilled” or even “sexy”, we are creating a fixed mindset for ourselves and others. In ourselves we build up an identity, an identity that will be shattered as soon as there is one contrasting piece of evidence against it. The only way to protect this identity is to never fail, or do a McEnroe and blame anything and everything. If we do this to our employees, we develop the same fear of failure in them. You may think you are providing a nice compliment to your employee by calling them “awesome” or “a star”, but you are actually building this fixed mindset in them. They will be terrified of letting you down, because this will dismantle the identity you’ve built up for them.

Instead make comments on effort. Tell yourself and others that you/they dedicated the time required for quality work, that good listening really paid off, that thinking of others created a winning outcome. Also highlight this when things don’t go so well, don’t call someone stupid/careless/lazy, tell them where and how they missed a trick. It makes them feel better and will also equal a far better outcome.

2. Identity the Learning

Something goes wrong. You fail to clinch a sale. A lot of valuable data gets lost. You start losing out to a competitor. What do you do? You seek to learn from that experience. Do not see the experience as a representation of failure, see it as an opportunity for growth. If you fail to clinch the sale, then think about how you can relate to your client better, or how you could learn more persuasion skills? When a lot of valuable data gets lost, work out what are most essential things to reproduce, analyse the system and what it’s weak points were; how can you tighten security for the future? If you start losing out to a competitor, be delighted that they have found out a more effective way to sell to your market, and look at how you can replicate their success.

3. Seek out Challenge

Challenge represents failure, so those with a fixed mindset will always shy away from it. But overcoming challenge is the only way we learn. You will never be able to run a good marathon time if you only ever practice ten-minute runs. I said earlier that our brain is a muscle, and you grow it by challenging yourself and developing more neural connections. So think about how you can start pushing yourself at work. Your boss wants volunteers for a project, be the first to stick your hand up. You hear about a new marketing strategy, experiment with it in your business. You want to take your knowledge and become self-employed, take the leap. You will either win, or you will learn. Either way you’re ahead of where you used to be.

So from now on, monitor your language. Avoid putting yourself and others into a fixed mindset box. Constantly evaluate your work and your teams work, the successes as well as the failures. Keep a journal and document that you update weekly on what you’re learnt that week. And push yourself and make yourself uncomfortable. One of my favourite quotes in this regard comes from Abraham Maslow:

“In any given moment we have two options, to step forward into growth, or back into safety. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again”

Let’s step forward into growth.