Moving the mountain. Can HR open minds to unlock learning?

Blog posts

18 Apr 2016

Amanda CallenAmanda Callen, Senior Research Fellow

Growth mindset’ is the belief that people’s talents and strengths are not fixed: they can change and learn, and the more effort they put in, ie practice, the better they get. We now know that growth mindset, pioneered by Carol Dweck and now preached and practised in educational establishments worldwide, also has potential benefits for organisational life

Research in organisations suggests that people with a growth mindset make better negotiators[1], manage their staff in a way that means they notice improvement more readily[2], and coach them more effectively for their development[3]. Growth mindset promises to boost employees’ persistence in the face of challenging tasks and allow greater skill levels to emerge.

But organisations seem to be inexplicably dragging their feet in applying mindset theory to their advantage.  This is odd when the cost of doing this is so low: research by Heslin, VanderWalle and Latham (2006)[4] shows that growth mindset can be learnt in a 90-minute workshop.

I would suggest that this is not so surprising when we consider that many HR processes are in fact predicated on an assumption of a fixed mindset and, to create a growth mindset culture, the systems, symbols and underlying assumptions supporting some of the most integrated HR processes would have to change. The ways in which organisations recruit, performance manage, develop and reward their employees often build on a belief that there are innately talented individuals who can contribute more than others to an organisation’s success. 

Whilst learning and development is ostensibly based on the principles of a growth mindset, further examination suggests that development activities might be working in opposition to the beliefs that appear to underpin many other people processes.

Consider recruitment.  For many organisations talent is a commodity that can and must be bought in at a price. So recruitment advertising describes the fixed sets of talents and strengths needed; candidates are encouraged to select themselves out of the process if these do not match.  Selection processes tend to be structured around shortlisting and assessing candidates on the basis of a static assessment of their existing qualifications, skills, experience and abilities.  

The seeds of change exist in organisations that include learning orientation as a selection criterion, or include multiple assessments of the motivation and capacity to learn.  However, rarely do assessment centres conduct an in-depth exploration of a candidate’s motivation to develop, attitudes to learning, willingness to take risks and curiosity, then prioritise those who show strong potential to learn and acquire talent.  And arguably this is an entirely reasonable position:  where organisations do not have a strong growth-mindset culture, recruiting growth-mindset candidates is almost certainly a recipe for failure for both the individual and the organisation.

In truth, few recruiters would select someone who wanted to learn, instead of someone who already had the skills needed but who showed little motivation to develop further.  Talent management processes tend seek out people to recruit and promote who have existing strengths and realised talent. 

Talent management is not the only aspect of HR that would require a fundamental rethink to accommodate a growth-mindset belief.  There is evidence of fixed-mindset assumptions underlying many aspects of HR, including reward strategy, promotion practice and leadership models. 

A fixed mindset seems to underpin much organisational culture too, and recent work by Dweck and her colleagues is offering an insight into what a more growth-based culture looks like[5].

It is a major undertaking to fully commit to growth mindset in organisational life and perhaps this awareness is at the root of the reticence of HR practitioners to engage with the idea. 

Yet growth mindset is a very appealing theory, the evidence from education is compelling and the fledgling research in organisations is intriguing and encouraging.  So perhaps, despite all the questions that remain and the inevitable cultural and strategic obstacles ahead, now is the time to dip HR toes in the water as the first step towards more growth mindset-orientated HR practice.  I can’t help feeling that to do so might uncover a wealth of as-yet untapped individual potential, and that in the longer term organisations would also reap the benefits of a more engaged, collaborative, and innovative workforce.