For many people, the desire to grow can stand at odds with our innate fear of failure. Few of us are comfortable with the idea of failing, struggling, or going outside of our comfort zones—even if that means expanding our capabilities in the long run. This is particularly true in the modern workplace where goal-oriented thinking may inherently favor wins.
But when we judge our outcomes as black and white—either success or failure—our overall growth can suffer. The same holds true for organizations that measure employee performance in terms of successes, rather than growth opportunities.
Embracing a “growth mindset” allows employees to reconceptualize their performance. A growth mindset places greater emphasis on challenging one’s self, rather than just the outcome of their efforts. This helps people reevaluate how they perceive their talent, success, and failure. The growth mindset model does away with rigid concepts of intelligence, ability, and skill—and fosters a broader definition of success.
Adopting this new way of thinking isn’t easy, though. This is particularly true within results-oriented organizations. Businesses that want to foster employee growth and skill acquisition should embrace a growth mindset. Here’s how coaching can help make it happen.
The Difference Between Growth and Fixed Mindsets
To understand the role of coaching and developing a growth mindset, it’s essential to understand what a growth mindset is and how it differs from a fixed mindset.
Research by Stanford University Psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose work has challenged notions of intelligence and its role in a person’s innate abilities, points toward the existence of two mindsets:
- Fixed mindset: When we have set assumptions about our capabilities, intelligence, and character
- Growth mindset: When we believe becoming an expert or master at a skill or goal is possible with enough work and perseverance
Those with a fixed mindset view their abilities as something they’re born with. Deviating from these skills means risking significant failure. In contrast, those with a growth mindset see mastery as a flexible process that relies on self-determination rather than talent alone.
Shifting to a growth-mindset model encourages people to:
- Embrace challenges rather than avoid them
- Work through setbacks instead of giving up
- Acknowledge that exerting effort is a sign of progress rather than failure
- Embrace criticism rather than fear it
- See others as a source of inspiration rather than competition
However, shifting away from a fixed mindset that measures one’s value solely on success can be uncomfortable, especially for motivated, talented, and intelligent people. Skilled employees may focus on succeeding at what they’re already good at, rather than trying (and potentially struggling) to learn new skills. That’s where organizations can help, particularly with professional coaching that encourages a growth mindset.
How a Growth Mindset Mitigates Risk Aversion
The fear of failure dictates most of the decisions that individuals make, including their own comfort in trying to learn new skills. This is due in large part to a psychological phenomenon known as risk aversion.
Those who are risk averse:
- Favor an easy win over a more challenging solution with a higher potential of failure
- Tend to think small if a “sure thing” is on the other side of a decision
- Stay in their comfort zone and keep people from venturing outside of known outcomes
- Are more likely to harbor a longer-term fear of failure
When we define success as the ability to achieve a desired outcome instead of the ability to grow despite challenges, learning new skills may be too much of a risk to our self-worth. Failure becomes an unbearable option, even if it means sacrificing personal development.
Risk aversion spurs from a fixed mindset, and particularly appears in those who believe they are naturally skilled or gifted. A growth mindset can help overcome innate risk aversion, breed comfort with struggling to learn a new skill, and open up the prospect of significant growth.
Shifting the Traditional Definition of Success
Overcoming the fear of failure is a difficult task for most. This is particularly true for people who have had positive reinforcement for tasks that they excel at doing naturally. This is because praise is generally tied to a successful result itself rather than the journey to the outcome. When one is praised for being intelligent, rather than hard working, many fear of being seen as anything less than smart or talented. As a result, people naturally gravitate toward the definition of success in a fixed mindset.
Transitioning to a growth mindset can be a challenge for individuals, particularly when their employers focus exclusively on outcomes. Employees may fear that they will not live up to lofty expectations of success when charged with tasks that fall outside their natural expertise; organizations that praise these outcomes, rather than the effort taken to grow or work at a new skill, may reinforce these beliefs as well.
How to Adopt a Growth Mindset in Your Organization
Encouraging a growth mindset in an organization requires a commitment to changing how success and failure are measured. In most cases, this means adopting a new definition of success, as well as new ways of communicating goals to your team. In a growth mindset mentality, business should:
- Encourage and challenge employees: foster growth by encouraging employees to try new skills
- Allow for failure: not all challenges will yield successes. Enable your employees to feel comfortable if they don’t master a new skill or challenge
- Emphasize constant learning: employees should be given the space to expand their knowledge and skills both in terms of support as well as dedicated time during the workweek to do so
- Be consistent: talk is cheap—businesses need to make sure they encourage growth, even if it means experiencing failure and missed goals
- Acknowledge your team: don’t just celebrate the victories. Make sure you also show appreciation for people who embody a growth mindset through actions
If individuals are encouraged to take risks, not be afraid to fail, and to champion personal growth as an equal measure of success as the outcomes of their work, an organization has to do the same. It’s not enough to encourage a growth mindset on an individual level; a company also has to embrace growth in terms of its own success criteria too.
Numerous organizations have embraced a growth mindset successfully. Microsoft embraced the growth mindset model in 2014. To do this, Microsoft embarked on an ambitious coaching program for managers. They also overhauled how the company sets expectations for employees. These and other success criteria became core components of how Microsoft encouraged a growth mindset with senior executives.
HP also began to pursue a growth mindset-based shift in company culture. This meant working with leaders to reassess how they and their employees should view success. The essence of this transformation included:
- Expanding their learning portal and encouraging employee use
- Fostering open communication between employees and managers
- Encouraging employees to pursue growth even at the expense of quick, easy wins
- Putting peer coaching and adaptation at the fore
How Coaching Fosters a Growth Mindset
Changing one’s own values system is a major undertaking, especially when ideas of success and failure are rooted in a lifetime’s worth of experiences. Although it’s possible to embrace a growth mindset without outside help, it’s often challenging for even the most introspective person to do. This is all the more challenging for businesses that want to instill a growth mindset within their employees and company culture.
HP tackled the challenge of a company-wide culture change by overhauling its annual review processes. The company did away with ratings and rankings as part of its evaluation process. Without fear of negative rankings and ratings, employees could then be free to try (and fail) at new tasks or learning new skills. According to an internal survey, 80 percent of managers who responded agreed that these changes would help foster personal growth and professional development within their teams.
Company-wide transformations are notoriously difficult to pull off. Some experts suggest that altering company culture is the last, most pivotal part of a transformation. In other words, it’s hard for anyone or any group to cultivate a growth mindset without coaching. Coaches with deep experience working on institutional and individual change in a professional setting already understand the psychological, scientific, and procedural challenges that go into systemic change. They are uniquely suited to tackle the logistics and execution needed in order for desired outcomes to actually happen.
Microsoft emphasized coaching to help make the growth mindset model stick. The organization used what it calls the Model Coach Care framework. Applying this framework meant interviewing more than 3,000 managers across their worldwide offices, establishing a clear set of role definitions and what was expected of these employees. Microsoft’s coaching programs now emphasize employee encouragement—even when employees fail or struggle to learn new skills.
Why Coaching and a Growth Mindset Work Together
Changing how individuals and organizations evaluate achievements can create a lasting impact on a business’ overall success. The benefits of adopting a growth mindset are vast: employees become more versatile, businesses more resilient, and company cultures more fulfilling and well-balanced. Doing so successfully, however, requires help from experts who know the challenges and opportunities that can drive lasting change.
Not every coaching group or model is created equal, either. Coaches that focus on providing one-on-one coaching with executives, group training, and an established criteria for success are more likely to create lasting change within an organization. At AceUp, we balance this approach with data and analytics to track professional growth and progress, rather than merely providing tools and coaching without also focusing on results.