Growth vs fixed mindset: what could it mean for sustainability?


“Growth” is a loaded word in sustainability circles, most often equating to growth of economic activity underpinned by overuse of natural resources and the resulting harms to ecosystem and human health.

Yet there is growing acknowledgement of the need for growth in good things, not just GDP – which Bobby Kennedy described in 1968 as measuring “everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Consider the need for growth in healthy nutrition and cities in a world where for the first time the obese outnumber the starving and the urban population outnumbers the rural. Consider the need for growth in access to health, wellbeing, literacy, higher education, skills, equity, diversity, arts and culture – things that support self-realization and a meaningful life.

Enter “growth vs fixed mindset”. It’s an approach to personal and organizational development that enables positive change.

What could that mean for fostering organizational capability for sustainability and the increasingly urgent need to decarbonize the global economy?

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Learning our self-beliefs

“Do you believe it is possible to increase your intellectual ability?” This provocative question opened an article in Scientific American MIND magazine showing that students who believe their intelligence can grow learn more, acquire deeper knowledge and do better – especially in hard subjects and in negotiating difficult school transitions – compared with equally able students who believe their intelligence is a fixed trait.

Our beliefs about our personality play a big role in our life. Research by Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success and determines how we respond to failure, learning and more —but whether we approach these experiences with a fixed or growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe characteristics like their personality and intelligence are predetermined and unchangeable, while people with a growth mindset believe these attributes can evolve and develop throughout their lives.

“These basic beliefs shape how people respond to failure, “ says Lauren Howe, one of Dweck’s PhD students. “For example, when people believe intelligence is fixed, they’ll feel worse about themselves – and are less likely to persist – after experiencing a setback.”

This growing body of research unpacks how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great accomplishment in every area. It’s what all great parents, teachers, CEOs and athletes already know: simply praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and achievement, but may actually jeopardize success.

With the right mindset, we can motivate and support our selves, our kids and our staff to do better, to reach our own goals—personal and professional.

Dweck’s and others’ past research with young children and school students has shown, among other things, that:

  • praising a child’s intelligence or talent sends a fixed mindset message, so that when these children encounter difficulties, they think they’re not so smart after all. They start to think that if they have to make an effort or encounter setbacks, these are signs of their limited talent. Consequently they learn to see challenges as risky, becoming reluctant to extend themselves or rise to external challenges
  • students with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence can grow. Because they aren’t worried about having to look intelligent, they are able to learn more, acquire deeper knowledge and do better in the face of both social and educational difficulties. As a result, they take on more challenges, persist longer at hard tasks and are more resilient in the face of setbacks and failures.

Kids who favoured a growth mindset enjoyed “substantially higher levels of academic achievement than those who espoused a fixed mindset.” Powerfully, these differences were consistent across every level of income: Carol Dweck noted that “poorer kids with growth mindsets often performed as well as far more privileged kids with fixed mindsets.”

From the nursery and classroom to the workplace and nation group, ongoing research by Dweck and colleagues shows that people can be taught that “all people have the potential to grow and change – it is not always easy but it is always possible.”

The research shows that shifting to a growth mindset can help to:

  • overcome depression
  • decrease aggression
  • increase compassion
  • strengthen willpower
  • promote conflict resolution
  • spur creativity in the workplace.

More importantly, the attitude shifts can endure, Dweck says: “Six months after a growth mind-set workshop, many of the people who had learned a growth mind-set perspective remained more optimistic than those in a control group about the possibility of forging a better future.”

Enabling growth on the job

Mindset can characterize and drive large, organized groups as well as individual people, as a study of hundreds of employees at seven Fortune 1000 companies showed. Dweck and colleague Mary Murphy asked these employees if their company believed in fixed talent or instead if it believed in the development of employees’ abilities. Findings included:

  • there was good consensus amongst employees as to whether or not their company had a fixed or growth mindset
  • mindset made a big difference to employee attitudes and job satisfaction
  • staff of growth mindset businesses:
    • felt far more empowered by their company and committed to it
    • said their organization valued innovation and creativity and would support them if they took a reasonable risk that didn’t work out
  • staff of fixed mindset businesses reported that fellow employees engaged in more devious practices such as keeping secrets or hoarding information, to make them look like “winners in the talent hierarchy”
  • managers in growth mindset businesses frequently said their employees showed the potential to rise and become stars
  • managers in fixed mindset businesses emphasised talent, but actually saw less potential in their employees.

I find the last two points very powerful, in light of other research that people rise – or fall – to the level of their teachers’ or bosses’ expectations.

Fostering a growth mindset

Understanding how we acquire our mindset, be it growth or fixed, means we can reset our attitudes to our self and others by cultivating a growth mindset.

From the two articles I’ve drawn on, Dweck and her colleagues have identified two main methods to foster growth mindsets; one which I’ve called “positive framing” and the other which the researchers call “process focus”.

How we “frame” or contextualize information or instructions (what context or perspective we put around it) has a big effect on how the recipients interpret them. Lauren Howe’s research shows that “changing someone’s beliefs about personality can shift his or her reactions to rejection.”

Howe said that in the final of a series of studies on romantic rejection, “We created articles that described personality as something that can evolve throughout a lifetime, rather than something that’s predetermined. When we asked people with a fixed view to read these articles, they became less likely to interpret rejections as an indication of a permanent, fatal deficiency. By encouraging the belief that personality can change and develop over time, we may be able to help people exorcise the ghosts of their romantic pasts – and move on to satisfying relationships in the future.”

Similarly, framing work-related information in terms of a growth mindset could help people believe that personal, professional or organisational development is possible – provided it’s not empty words. It’s not enough to say “Just try harder,” or “You can do anything if you work hard enough.” Even bosses or trainers with a growth mindset need tools to help them put it into practice with their staff and trainees. This is where the “process focus” comes in.

A “process focus” – including explicitly using the words “growth mindset” – teaches us that we can all learn and change and grow, and gives us the tools we need to support this growth.

To convey a true growth mindset, adults need to help kids, and managers need to help their staff, to realize they can develop their talents.

This means praising the process more than the person. In the workplace, this would include using process-focus methods to support personal and organizational growth, for example by (and here I’ve interpolated some work-related wording into the researchers’ findings):

  • appreciating genuine effort such as specific actions, persistence, use of good strategies and appropriate seeking of input from others as they strive to meet a higher standard
  • reinforcing underlying concepts or principles or outcomes
  • giving feedback that deepens understanding of what’s gong on in the work-related and learning processes
  • reinforcing the view that setbacks are helpful not harmful
  • having a positive response to learning errors and encouraging staff to try again, using what they’ve learned
  • helping them to understand what they need to do to further develop their abilities, and guiding them in that process
  • linking these actions and strategies directly to learning and progress
  • providing opportunities to revise and resubmit work or rehearse important actions.

Creating a “can do” growth mindset for sustainability

I believe this research has significant implications for bottom line business results: companies with higher levels of staff engagement are more productive and profitable than their same sector peers. Combined with the survey findings about the higher levels of organizational support for innovation and creativity in growth mindset businesses, I think we have here a recipe for the agility and enterprise we need if we are to meet our climate change and other environment and sustainability goals.

It also has significant implications for governments: it could provide a supportive tool to help them work out how to meet their emissions targets and other environment and sustainability goals.

For me the two key learnings about promoting a growth mindset are:

  • provide positive perspectives
  • praise the process not the person.

What about you and your organisation?

How do you characterise your organization with respect to “growth vs fixed mindset”?

What degree of congruence is there between formal commitments and words & deeds when it comes to staff development, training, workplace support and staff as well as organizational learning – including learning from failures?

What changes could you make to foster the development of personal and organizational growth mindsets?

What big environment and sustainability challenges could you take on as a result?


  1. See the remarkable content of Bobby Kennedy’s speech at .
  2. The Remarkable Reach of Growth Mind-Sets. An article by Carol S Dweck in the January/February 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind. Carol is Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: the new Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, 2007.
  3. What can mend broken hearts? An article by Lauren Howe, one of Caroll Dweck’s PhD Candidates in Psychology, Stanford University in the 1 February 2016 edition of the New Zealand Herald (see



Clare Feeney is a consultant, author and speaker on business, economics and the environment.

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