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Support growth NOT by telling others they are smart

I need to vent a bit. When I hear a client or friend say, “That’s just who I am”, or “that’s not me”, or “I can’t change” it makes me crazy. It may look like they are poking fun at themselves, but in reality they are failing to take personal responsibility to change. They may be so set in their ways they cannot see their way out of a situation. Or, they may fear getting out of their comfort zone to learn something, so they stay in a fixed place.

This is a fixed vs. growth mindset.  Carol Dweck, pioneering researcher on motivation, wrote “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success,” and it shows that failure is a chance to grow and learn.  Do you have a Growth or a Fixed mindset?

Growth mindset

  1. We can solve problems when we keep working at it

  2. We all have choices

  3. We learn more from mistakes than successes

  4. Efforts and attitudes determine our success

  5. Self-efficacy is more important than self-esteem

  6. Believe improvement comes from learning

  7. Desire to be challenged

  8. Emotional resilience

Fixed Mindset

  1. Don’t make mistakes

  2. Perfection

  3. Need constant validation

  4. Something may be easy for me and others cannot do it

  5. May have a deep sense of self-doubt, fear of failure and risk aversion

  6. Time spent documenting their intelligence vs. developing themselves. This may look like bragging, dominating conversations, showing off

  7. Constant need to prove themselves

  8. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort

Many people with fixed mindsets spend time justifying why they are right, proving their dominance or smarts, or dominating conversations.

Why is this important to managers? Because if your team realize they can develop themselves, and are on a continuous improvement journey, then they will make the most progress at work and life.

Tips for parents:

The kids who are praised for their smarts only, can feel the need to cheat in order to uphold the smartness trait. If praised for their ability rather than effort, kids feel pressured to meet other people’s expectations. They will then do anything to uphold the perception of their ability, including bragging, or hiding from challenge.

Help them learn and develop resilience and a positive attitude toward learning.

As parents, give praise and feedback which connect to and support growth, for that is better than saying “you’re so smart” to kids. Praise the effort and the process: “You are trying hard, you put a lot of effort into this,” it builds resilience in kids. Don’t praise their smarts, their looks or their athleticism, because then, you fail to nurture in the child that it is their own effort which will grow them the most. Those kids may grow up and become the person who feels they don’t need to improve, self-reflect, and learn from feedback from others.

  1. Ask them what they may be missing when struggling to solve a problem

  2. Ask them what else they could try

  3. Ask, what they can learn from this

  4. Ask, what other strategy can be used

  5. Help them see it may take time

  6. Encourage perseverance

Tips for managers:

Focus on helping your direct reports develop a growth mindset by addressing their performance and effort instead of their ability.

Fixed mindset people have a lot of fear to be smart or good at a particular skill. They can be less persistent in finishing problems, and end up ultimately performing worse than people praised for effort. This can show up as bragging, competitiveness, bold talk, or avoidance of responsibility. Many times they have a lack of ability to see others’ perspectives as well.

Make it safe to talk about their effort, performance and process. This may help them open up about their fears. Reward their effort, process, approach and strategies. Gradually they will gain confidence in their ability to sustain work towards their goals, and you will have learned to support the growth mindset.

Please enjoy Carol Dweck’s Ted talk. It focuses on students, yet her concepts are applicable to anyone.


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