Approaching Feedback Sessions with a Growth Mindset Can Make You a Better Leader

I just finished Carol Dweck’s bestselling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It’s chocked full of ideas that can help you be a better leader and a better person. The main premise: there are two mindsets with which we humans approach our lives – a Growth Mindset or a Fixed Mindset.

Fixed Mindset:  intelligence and personality traits are largely fixed. You are either smart, or you’re not. This mindset often results in an urgency to prove yourself over and over again.

Growth Mindset: intelligence and personality traits can be increased. Everyone can grow through study, practice, and experience. Mistakes can be our greatest opportunity to improve.

This graphic,visually demonstrates the two mindsets.

Dweck makes a very readable case for her Mindset findings. In one instance, she describes an experiment conducted in the Brain Wave lab at Stanford University. Those with a fixed mindset were more interested in feedback that told them if they were right or wrong, but then tuned out subsequent information that would help them learn and grow. Those with a growth mindset were interested in information that could stretch their knowledge and help them grow.

Another interesting experiment Dweck described involved leadership teams assigned a complex management project. The teams started with equal ability, but some groups were comprised of individuals with a growth mindset and other teams with a fixed mindset. The growth teams outperformed the fixed teams, learning from their mistakes and leveraging feedback.

The researchers also found significant differences in how the teams interacted. The fixed teams were anxious about how their ideas would be received and worried about being judged as either smart or dumb. These groups did not have open discussions of various ideas and ended up with a group-think approach to the management task. By contrast, the individuals within the growth teams were more likely to honestly state their opinions and to surface and discuss disagreements among the team before moving forward.

It turns out that individuals with a growth mindset are open to receiving accurate information on their current abilities because they understand that they need that information to learn and grow. They want authentic feedback!

Because your feedback session involves two people, at the outset think about two mindsets.

First, start with your mindset – after all it’s the one piece of this equation that you truly control. Supervisors with a growth mindset demonstrate three important traits:

  1. Zest for teaching and learning,
  2. Openness to giving and receiving feedback, and
  3. Ability to confront and surmount obstacles.

Prepare yourself for the session by thinking of it as an important learning experience for you and for your employee. Your goal is to teach the employee, not to judge.  And, though you may start as the “teacher,” with an openness to growth and a desire to listen, you too can learn something new. The best feedback sessions are dual learning experiences.

Second, think about your employee’s mindset and help him or her adopt a growth mindset. If you initiate the feedback session truly believing that your employee can improve and grow, he or she is more likely to do just that. Then, begin the discussion by describing the purpose as improvement and openly expressing your belief that the employee can grow and develop. With this approach, you can disarm the employee’s defensiveness and induce a growth mindset from the start.

Once you have planned for mindset, you should next consider the words you choose when you give feedback. Praise effort and praise improvement; the focus on improvement stimulates a growth mindset. For example, in the case where an employee has done a great job, feedback that says, “wow, that was great, you are so smart” can actually induce a fixed mindset by focusing on the employee’s “smarts” as a fixed trait. Instead, growth mindset feedback would look more like this, “wow, that was great, you worked really hard to figure out every piece of the puzzle for a comprehensive plan.”

This focus on effort and progress is not the same as awarding the derided “participation prize.” While praising effort and improvement, you must still be honest about the employee’s performance. Armed with accurate information and your encouragement, employees can achieve what is expected with continued effort and growth.

Embracing a growth mindset as a leader will help you give more effective feedback. It will also help you take on challenges and stick with it, bounce back from setbacks, and support others in their own growth.