Often, we mistakenly attribute business success to the innate abilities of those who achieve it. We assume that the skills of a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs, or a Jeff Bezos are somehow hardwired into their DNA. But neuroscience research suggests that such an assumption can become a major obstacle to high performance.
As Steven Snyder explains in the excerpt below, the real secret of success resides in people’s mind-set. He shows how a “fixed” mind-set that ascribes success to innate qualities is less resilient and adaptable than a “growth” mind-set that connects achievement to continuous learning and persistence.
Thus, neuroscience offers a valuable strategy for leaders who are seeking to develop the talent base of their organization: Attribute people’s success to what they did to achieve it. And when they fall short of their goals, use it as an opportunity to encourage the improvement of existing capabilities and the development of new ones. The simple distinction between labeling a person as successful or unsuccessful and labeling what that person did as successful or unsuccessful can make all the difference as you strive to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
— Judith E. Glaser
An excerpt from chapter 3 of Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity
Consider two leaders who set out on a complex and difficult endeavor. Let’s call them FM and GM, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. FM and GM are equally matched with respect to their abilities and motivation, yet these two leaders approach a task very differently. FM, a cyclone of unfocused energy, does not learn from feedback opportunities and appears frenetic, chaotic, and haphazard overall. GM is more organized and systematic and carefully considers all feedback. FM’s counterproductive whirlwind is no match for GM’s logical and calibrated approach, and GM easily outperforms FM by a significant margin. What can account for such radical differences between two individuals so clearly matched?
It turns out that FM and GM were prototypical participants in a very clever psychological experiment. FM refers to those who approached the task with a fixed mind-set—the assumption that their abilities were innate and not subject to change. GM refers to those who approached the task with a growth mind-set—the belief that their ability level was nothing more than a snapshot in time and eminently changeable as they continued to learn and develop.
Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that conditioning, beginning at a very young age, implicitly imposes a fixed mind-set. Virtually every adult has at some point told a youngster who did something well, “You are so smart!” According to Dweck, such messages build a belief that it is our inherent smartness that leads to good performance, not the effort that is exerted.
Through the associative processes of the automatic mind, these beliefs become forged with our identity. When things go well, we think it’s because of how smart we are. When things don’t turn out as we had hoped, we begin to doubt our ability. In other words, our mental model implicitly attributes performance—good or bad—to innate capabilities. We tend to think of capabilities such as problem solving, communication skills, and leadership as fixed and stable over time, hardwired by our genes. So, what is so wrong with that?
Quite a bit, actually. This mental model is a proven recipe for suboptimal performance over the long term. It becomes especially problematic when individuals with a fixed mind-set suffer a setback or make a mistake. They automatically associate their disappointing performance with an immutable deficit in abilities. This can diminish their confidence and spark an escalating spiral of negative emotion as they compare themselves unfavorably with others. More time spent in negative ideation means less time thinking about creative ways to improve performance....