HomearticleFixed Mindsets vs. Growth Mindsets

Fixed Mindsets vs. Growth Mindsets





From Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s intensive research on personal and organisational success, we know that mindsets create an entire psychological world for people, where everything has a different meaning depending on the mindset held.

Dweck’s research shows that people tend to have one of two sets of beliefs that create a mindset about work, learning and their own abilities: fixed mindset or growth mindset.

Arising from these two mindsets, which we learn and often embed from a very early age, comes a great deal of our behaviour, our relationship with success and failure, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

A Fixed Mindset

  • assumes that our character, intelligence and creative ability are unchangeable

  • believe that talent and intelligence are set at birth ” you either have it or not

  • believes that success is the confirmation of those features

  • strives for success and avoids failure at all costs

  • tend not to learn from their errors

  • believe that hard work and effort are to be avoided

  • believe that successful people look cool and achieve effortlessly

  • finds change extremely difficult

  • for people with a fixed mindset, the number one rule is to look good at all times

  • can become a way of maintaining the sense of “being smart” or of being a great leader

Whereas, the opposite is:

A Growth Mindset

  • thrives on change

  • sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a springboard for growth

  • sees mistake and failure as an opportunity to stretch and grow our existing abilities

  • actively seeks challenge as part of learning, and is happy to take risks

  • believes we never stop learning

  • see effort as good and thrives on challenge

  • knows that qualities such as intelligence and creativity (two traits many organisations are looking for in their leaders) can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice

  • works better in times of change as it enables people to continue to grow, take a risk and learn

Leaders with a Growth Mindset:

  • are not discouraged by failure

  • priority is to learn, grow and stretch their knowledge

  • don’t see themselves as failing but rather see themselves as learning and experiencing

  • believe that behaviour isn’t about pass or fail but about continuous mindful growth and growth of performance

  • believe talent is the start point not the end point, and talent can be developed

  • don’t praise talent, but praise effort and personal development instead, plus willingness to try new things

  • expect performance-based conversations to be employee-instigated

  • have more trust in others

  • feel more connection to the company

  • hold beliefs about their people and teams

  • strongly endorse risk-taking and give support if failure ensues

  • increase ability to use divergent thinking, problem solve, and develop creative insight ” all important for business success

  • see their people as high potential

  • hire for potential and pour development into people

  • design leadership solutions and practice behaviour that isn’t about pass or fail but about growth and performance

  • encourage their team members to take proud ownership of a growth mindset as they allow it to steer and guide their career

In contrast:

Leaders with a Fixed Mindset:

  • believe employees either have it or they don’t

  • believe that intelligence, skills and talents are fixed traits, there to make the person look good

  • use language around performance cased in fixed mindset: eg He is really smart” ,”She is so talented” – when leaders use language like this with a direct report it has the effect of stifling growth and further development

  • focuses on looking smart and clever at all times and at all costs

  • in the face of setbacks, hide mistakes and conceal deficiencies, because they are permanent

  • believe that if you”re not going to look clever, then don’t do it

  • find it difficult to produce divergent thinking and difficult to problem-solve and think creatively

  • develop a record of success rather than developing talent, and believes talent alone motivates success

  • apply all of these beliefs to their people and teams

  • find it hard to see the point of development programs, feedback and coaching

  • see performance as a static trait

  • tend not to learn from errors

  • believe that in business you need to find those people who can perform in the role and then work to hire or retain them

The neuroscience behind Growth Mindset

The growth mindset can be cultivated and developed at any point in life. The human brain is ideally suited for a growth mindset. It is constantly creating and destroying neural pathways, forming the thought and behaviour patterns our brain uses to make decisions, form behaviours, and choose actions that present us to the outside world. The pathways that are used get stronger; those that are under-used grow weak and eventually replaced.

When reviewed through this lens, Dweck’s explanation of fixed vs. growth mindsets makes perfect senseit correlates with hard scientific data. A growth mindset is the belief that we never stop learning and improving. The neuroscience reveals that this mindset appears to actually encourage the growth of new neural pathways, forming new connections that weren’t there yesterday, instead of running over the same pathways over and over again (fixed mindset). Brains that are programmed to operate with this type of thinking tend to learn new information much faster. More importantly, they seem better able to connect one new thought or insight to another, allowing truly transformational ideas to emerge.

A glimpse into people’s minds – literally

Dweck’s research has revealed that in an experiment using brain imaging of people performing a task and making errors, those with a fixed mindset show considerably less brain activity compared to those with a growth mindset, who were actively processing errors to learn from them. The research also found that those with a fixed mindset could be taught to adopt a growth mindset and then the brain activity increased as they began seeking to learn.

Entire organisations exhibit mindsets too

Many organisations are shifting and leaving behind a culture of a Fixed Mindset mode of operation, and growing and embedding an exciting, inspiring new culture of Growth Mindset. Dweck’s work shows that organisational mindset permeates everything in the business, and has a particular impact on a company’s ability to grow talent and drive performance.

IECL works with many individuals, teams and organisations across a diverse breadth of industry sectors to develop the necessary leadership skills, awareness and traits to ensure success. Learn more about what we do.


Mindset, by Carol S Dweck, Ballantine Books, 2006
Brain-Savvy Leading, by Jan Hills, Lindsay Hanson and Sarah North, Head, Heart and Brain, UK, 2014
Brain-Savvy Business, by Jan Hills, Head, Heart and Brain, UK, 2016
Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, Harper Collins, 2011
Coaching with the Brain in Mind, by David Rock and Linda J Page, John Wiley and Sons, 2009
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, Regan Books, 2002
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley, Random House, 2007
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
Mindset: Changing the Way you Think to Fulfill Your Potential, Little Brown Group, Carol Dweck, 2012
How Companies Can Profit from a “Growth Mindset”, HBR Nov 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-companies-can-profit-from-a-growth-mindset