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Understanding The Growth Mindset Clear Review's CEO and co-founder explores what exactly the growth mindset is, and its role when it comes to performance management at your startup.

By Stuart Hearn

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Dr. Carol Dweck's discovery of (and experiments with) fixed and growth mindsets have changed the way we think about learning and development. The theory, popularized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, affects the way we look at education and potential, innovation, and performance. Over three decades ago, the Stanford University psychology professor became interested in how students reacted to failure. Dweck and her colleagues noticed some students bounced back fairly quickly, while others seemed devastated by even small setbacks.

Dweck investigated why this was, and whether it is something we can control. Her search ultimately led her to coin the term "growth mindset," which is now often used in management circles. But what exactly is a "growth mindset," and how does it apply to performance management? Why is it crucial to the development of entrepreneurs, and the secret ingredient in the success of a tech startup? We'll explore this below as well as covering how we can adapt our feedback culture to best nurture a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?
We use the term "growth mindset" to describe our underlying beliefs and attitudes towards learning and intelligence. If you have a "fixed mindset," you effectively believe you have limited potential. You have your strengths and your limitations, and you are unable to work above and beyond them. Employees with a growth mindset believe they can become smarter, more productive, and more talented. They also understand that effort and perseverance makes them stronger, which helps them achieve more.

To best illustrate a growth mindset, we can look at an experiment conducted by Dweck. She decided to investigate the language used in a classroom, after noting that teachers were far more likely to praise students for being "clever" or "talented," rather than for their effort. Dweck's experiment involved a group of children who were asked to solve a basic puzzle. Half the children involved were praised for being smart, while the other half were given a pat on the back for trying hard. They were then given a more complicated puzzle to solve.

The results showed the children told they were smart the first time around gave up sooner, and scored lower with the second puzzle. Meanwhile, the children who were encouraged and praised for their effort persevered, and earned higher scores. Dweck also discusses how praise relating to intellect could -perhaps- instill a fear of failure.

Related: Ditch Annual Appraisals: Continuous Performance Management Is The Way Forward

Why do startups need to cultivate a growth mindset?
A growth mindset encourages experimentation and creativity. As San Francisco-based startup accelerator RocketSpace states in its Tech Startup Founders Blog, experimentation is one of the most important principles of startup growth and success. Many sources echo this sentiment.

Creativity, innovation, and experimentation are crucial to entrepreneurship and business success- and are especially essential to tech startups. Such companies need a growth mindset to challenge themselves, advance, and set themselves apart. Tech entrepreneurs need to be persistent and determined. They also need to be brave enough to take risks, while staying thirsty for knowledge and development. At the same time, they need to be able to accept setbacks by understanding that "failures" are stepping stones, or lessons, on the way to success.

The reason we need to keep an eye on emerging performance management trends is that -as the years progress- so does our understanding of neuroscience and employee motivation. Due to these advances, we now know the human brain is much more easily influenced than we thought before. A field known as brain plasticity demonstrates that connectivity between neurons can change with experience and practice. Neural networks can develop new connections, become strengthened, and send impulses at a speedier rate. This same field tells us we can increase our neural growth by taking certain actions. We should ask the right questions, practice, sleep, and eat well- and persevere.

Ultimately, managers can change specific environments and processes to influence mindsets and encourage a thirst for learning. When we do, it can lead to increased performance, motivation, and achievement.

How to apply a growth mindset to performance management
Now, you're aware of the benefits of a growth mindset. The next question is, how do we nurture such a mindset in our organization using performance management processes? There is no set method for this- although there are a few techniques that can start to slowly and surely promote growth mindsets.

1. Introduce regular coaching conversations
Coaching conversations provide managers with the opportunity to give recognition, reward, and praise to their employees. Approval is important- but equally important is the type of praise delivered. When exchanging feedback, encourage employee efforts as well as successes.

2. Create SMART objectives
Encouraging a growth mindset involves providing your employees with a challenge. Their SMART objectives should be a stretch, without being unrealistic. Once employees accomplish goals just outside of their comfort zone, they will see how far perseverance and determination take them. When they experience setbacks, you should know that people with a growth mindset see setbacks as opportunities to learn.

3. Encourage a thirst for learning
Provide your workforce with a sense of curiosity, and let them know your company encourages continual training and development. You can go a step further, and work with your employees to create personal development objectives that structure their goals.

4. Help them to change their inner monologue
This one is more tricky, but managers should try to help employees see themselves in a different light. The way they talk to themselves matters. Encourage a healthy, positive outlook, and encourage your employees to speak to themselves in a positive, energized way. Rather than thinking, "I can't," encourage them to ask how they can achieve a particular goal. Instead of relying on a single, yearly, backward critique of past performance, managers working with continuous performance management can develop a healthy feedback culture through regular coaching conversations.

These discussions mean your employees have consistent guidance towards future goals and development objectives. Continuous, agile performance management is an approach that prioritizes real-time feedback and transparent communication. It also means your employees can develop while helping the company meet its organizational objectives.

Related: The Modern Challenges Of Managing Remote Performance

Stuart Hearn

Founder, Clear Review

Stuart Hearn has twenty years of experience in the HR sector. He co-founded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as International HR Director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system.
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