Is a fixed mindset OK?

I was speaking to my daughter about a growth mindset recently and she agreed to post a summary of what it is.

As my daughter Kiran explained, it is pretty obvious that a growth mindset is good, because it involves perseverance, confidence and other important traits. It is equally obvious that a fixed mindset is bad, because it involves self-doubt, giving up and other unhelpful things.

Therefore you should adopt a growth mindset and be confident that you will get where you want to go. Kiran pretty much takes this for granted and her view is frequently reinforced by her peers and role models.

For example, when we had a “lockdown” in Sydney, as a result of Covid-19, Kiran had to learn from home. She took to this like a duck to water while her teacher embraced the challenge of teaching 20 children using technology and “cloud based” lessons that had never been tried before by either the teacher or the kids.

I told Kiran that they are a pretty amazing bunch, to handle adversity and challenge so well.

Unfortunately this led to trouble. Apparently a fixed mindset is called fixed because it assumes that people will succeed because of their innate traits – such as being resilient or having a growth mindset.

My daughter sees it quite differently. Kiran thinks that everyone can have a growth mindset if they choose to. So growth is a choice, not a characteristic of the person.

According to this mental model, Kiran and her teacher are not awesome or unusual at all, they just choose to adopt an appropriate way of thinking to the situation they find themselves in. But do I fully agree with them?

Do I really believe that we can all deliberately choose our attitude and thus our mindset? Certainly adopting an agile way of working would be a natural and in fact, a straightforward thing to adopt if this were the case.

Me overthinking things as usual – it is just the way I am, I’m afraid

So I did some reflection – how well does this actually “growth mindset is a choice” attitude translate into the workplace?

I checked with the Harvard Business Review and it seems that we do want to have teams with a growth mindset (see – Companies should have a growth mindset). So that argument has been resolved – growth mindset good, fixed mindset bad.

Just to be sure, I also asked my friends who are agile coaches and they agreed:

Growth mindsets are definitely good – you should adopt them immediately. Go forth and BE agile – don’t just walk about DOING agile.

All my friends who are agile coaches

So there is no question that we SHOULD adopt a growth mindset. The only question to answer is whether a team that is not yet agile can actually choose to adopt a new mindset (agile, growth or any other one for that matter).

I have been an agile coach for a while and the change seems harder than just deciding to change our attitudes. Or maybe I just suck at being an agile coach.

No I am confident that I am a good agile coach and I have had some great successes that back that view up.

Then why is it hard? Perhaps it is someone else’s fault.

Agility is possible. But you need management buy-in and the problem is that management just don’t get it. They are the big impediment because they want to be command and control baddies

A comment heard from several of my agilista friends, more than once

So – it seems that management are the problem, with their fixed way of doing things.

Hmm – there is only one problem. This very statement is an example of a fixed mindset, as is the claim that I will succeed because “I am a good agile coach,” or that I will fail if “I suck at being an agile coach.”

As I sat down and happily drank a cup of tea, while my daughter went off to play Minecraft, where apparently you need a Growth Mindset to become good at the game. Perhaps, as she would like me to believe, playing Minecraft is a kind of homework, that helps her to build an growth mindset ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(Note that my daughter taught me how to add that shrug-face to this article, apparently she learned through experimentation and learning from failure). There almost seems to be a pattern here.

I pondered how it is hard to be an agile coach unless you have people with a growth mindset in the team – people like my daughter, her peers and her teacher. Perhaps this is part of why some teams take to agile like ducks to water, while others seem to leap away from it, like a pet cat being invited into the water for a bath.

Perhaps, I pondered, the real secret is to ensure you have growth-minded people in the team. Simply remove those with a fixed mindset and work with those who want to learn.

It is like having two seeds, one seed is scared to grow and see the outside because its leaves might get hurt by the sun, or have its leaves get damaged by rain.

The second seed pushes the fear into a corner of her mind, a place that she never wants to go, so she will not fear any of the things the other seed fears, she will push herself as hard as she can, so she can feel the outside.

The first seed has a Fixed Mindset while the second seed has a Growth Mindset.

Kiran King (my daughter)

However, then I realised several things at exactly the same time, that stopped me in my tracks and led me to go and start a whole new cup of tea:

  • If I assume that many people have a fixed mindset and cannot change, then I am displaying a Fixed Mindset. Someone with a Growth Mindset would believe everyone can learn new things, even evolving a Growth Mindset. This is a problem because if I start to encourage a growth mindset by applying a fixed mindset, this seems like a bad place to start.
  • A growth mindset is good so I should choose to adopt one to do my work. If I start the right way then people should be able to see the benefits, and since they are capable of growth, they will generally decide to adopt a growth mindset – so far so good.
  • Even equipped with the right attitude though, I find the journey hard and have even failed before (not failed and learned like a growth mindsetter would do, but failed and moved on, like a fixed mindsetter would do). Is it just me or the team that is to blame? That doesn’t sound like a growth like attitude, but it is definitely true that I have failed before – or that I have succeeded in giving up and moving on, which does not really sound a lot better.
  • Other coaches whom I really respect have failed too though – so it is not just me or the teams I have worked with. There must be something that is happening that is repeatedly getting in the way of teams who want to adopt the right mindset and want to embark on the long journey from seed to flourishing plant. This view is supported by the researcher who first identified the concept of growth mindsets. Carol Dweck has cautioned against applying the concept of a growth mindset without fully understanding what it means. She explains that great damage has been done by people attempting to create a growth mindset among students without doing it right. Maybe the same thing happens in the workplace.
  • But if I want to adopt a growth mindset, I cannot avoid the journey just because I am scared the sun will burn my leaves. I need to put my fear in a small place and move toward growth. Or so my 8 year old daughter tells me.
  • Yet I do worry that I am not entirely sure that I fully grasp what is needed, nor that I role model an ideal growth mindset.
  • This is all a little inconvenient if I recommend removing fixed-mindsetters and replacing them with growth minded people. Effectively, I am recommending that I get out of the way and let those who have really great mindsets get on with the job.

Well that didn’t end too well. But as I finished my tea, I came to a realisation. There is a paradox that kind of lets me off the hook. Let’s call it King’s paradox, after me and my daughter, or maybe King’s excuse after my ability to let myself off the hook.

If a team already has a growth mindset and the coach already understands the journey then there is really no change needed. The journey is already complete.

For a coach to add value to a team they must also be on the same journey. This means that they must put their fear into a small place AND that they must themselves be growing. Since they are still growing they must still be a work in progress.

Sadly this means that both the team and the coach must still be fighting to overcome their own “bad” mindsets. Which means that they must have an element of a fixed mindset to overcome.

Thus … Kings paradoxes

  1. Any agile journey worth taking must start from where you don’t want to be. Any team that is already where you want to be no longer needs a coach.
  2. Any coach that has finished their journey has stopped being on the coach’s journey.
  3. My daughter’s post was a lot shorter and yet the journey ended in the same place. It often seems that 8 year old kids understand the world in it pure form better than experienced coaches. Unfortunately labour laws inhibit the ability to hire them as professional coaches, so we need to pretend we are adults while secretly learning from them.
A potential journey

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