Companies often set up their management roles as rewards for outstanding individual performance. There is one fundamental problem with this: individual achievement has nothing to do with good management. (See my post on the differences among leadership and management and authority.) But all is not lost! In order to transition well from stellar individual performance to being a stellar manager, you’ve got to master one foundational skill, and that is fostering the growth mindset.
Have you heard of that term, growth mindset? Have you read Carol Dweck’s book on Mindset? If you haven’t read the book, be cautious about assuming you know what the term “growth mindset” means! The term is now so overused that it is often used incorrectly.
In the growth mindset, effort, learning strategies, and help from others can cultivate any and all desired characteristics. “Learn and help learn” is the growth mindset mantra.
In contrast, someone with a fixed mindset assumes that characteristics (smarts, capability, humor, compassion, whatever) are inherent to a person. Fixed-mindset people also believe that the level of those characteristics are set in stone. You are born with what you’ve got. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.
Fostering a growth mindset requires practice. The fixed mindset is so powerful, it can be difficult to counter it. Here’s the sneaky thing about the fixed mindset: a positive fixed mindset can be just as debilitating as a negative one.
Let me show you.
I identified as a smart kid. My parents were supportive and encouraging. I got good grades – straight A’s all through elementary school and high school. My family and teachers treated all of us kids well, and used “smart,” “clever,” and “intelligent” labels to describe us.
And then, university-level math courses completely chewed me up and spit me out.
This experience knocked my positive fixed mindset as one of the smart kids totally off its perch. I really struggled. What did my struggle mean, except that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was? I made it mean that I must not be that great with numbers, after all.
This thinking was crippling in many ways. It followed me through my entire college experience and early career. I found ever-greater evidence of it whenever large amounts of numeric data were in play.
Because work involving numbers didn’t always come easily, it of course reinforced my fixed mindset about my “poor” math abilities, even when there was just as much evidence to the contrary. The brain looks for proof of its fixed mindset, even when there is evidence in the other direction.
Unless I was good at numbers all the time, I couldn’t actually say, “I’m great at numbers.” That’s the fixed mindset for you. It operates in absolutes.
The growth mindset, in contrast, is never about absolutes. The growth mindset values learning and evolution. There is no such thing as someone being inherently good at something, because someone can always get better at something.
When leadership promotes you into management, you must move from a system that values individual contribution to one that values the success of others. You find incredible success as a manager when you make that shift in your personal value system.
Your priority is to learn how to move away from thinking about how you excel, to focus primarily on helping others excel. The only way to make that shift well is to employ the growth mindset. You can do this by:
- Allowing the room to make informed mistakes (decisions had sound rationale with the information you had at the time, even if the decision ended up being wrong), and take lessons from them. (See my post on the right way to fail.)
- Taking risks (See my post on the differences between risk and uncertainty)
- Taking action to expand your strategy and critical thinking, even if there is an error at the end, rather than remaining “safe” yet stunted in your management evolution. (See my post on how taking action is always the win, as well as my simple 3-2-1 model for critical thinking.)
The incredible upsides of a growth mindset in management include the following things you can do:
- Build resilience because your confidence is not fixed (and therefore, fragile)
- Constantly seek knowledge to satisfy intellectual curiosity, and therefore, rarely get bored in your job
- Surround yourself with more advanced/experienced people, rather than surround yourself with “inferiors” to pump up your own self-image
- Master constructive (i.e., building up) criticism, rather than use criticism that is called constructive yet only serves to demoralize
- Be truly goal oriented: focused on the “how” to get there, rather than assume you innately have the “what” that will get you there
Once I challenged my own fixed mindset about my abilities, I saw all the fantastic work I accomplished in numbers-heavy projects over the years.
This “new” evidence in a growth mindset supported the thinking that I could master anything. I just needed to give the process enough effort, find the right approach, and get help if needed.
This is completely different than the mentality I had as a “smart” child. Now, I never tell my 5 year old that she’s smart. I tell her she’s a great learner. I say she can master anything she wants to, if she can figure out a path to get there.
Your promotion to management might mean you move from top performer back to the bottom of the totem pole. You now have to learn entirely new management skills that your previous stellar performance didn’t teach you.
That’s OK. Your growth mindset will eventually get you there.