Becoming is Better than Being

March 27, 2017 Author: Noelle Menendez, M.A.

When human spaceflight was occurring more regularly than it is today, NASA was seeking astronaut applicants and they were searching through graduates of ivy leagues, established experts in their respective fields and a plethora of high achievers. However, they were searching for one thing in particular: failure. NASA turned down applicants with unadulterated experiences of success and instead, America’s space agency selected people with significant set backs who were able to overcome them. Why, you might ask? NASA knew how well failure tested people’s resolve and revealed a critical asset in the pursuit of greatness(1).

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, was always interested in how children responded to challenges and failures. Some responded with confidence while others wilted and gave up in the face of obstacles. In her research, Dweck found that it was more than just coping with a failure it was about how they responded, in fact, some children seemed to use failure as a powerful source of motivation. She discovered two mindsets through her research: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a mental framework centered on the belief that intelligence (or leadership, athletic ability, etc.) can be developed through effort, learning from setbacks, and timely feedback. Those with a growth mindset are inspired by the success of other’s as they study the repeatable elements of their success(1).

On the other hand, an individual with a fixed mindset believes that one’s skills, abilities, and intelligence are static. They feel as though they have to prove their talent time and time again with effort being a sign of inadequacy. A fixed oriented person works from a “judge-and-be-judged” framework. As obstacles arise, this individual gives up or becomes defensive by making excuses or taking no responsibility for their actions. Challenges are avoided, feedback is ignored, and the success of others poses a threat to those with a fixed mindset(1).

While most leaders and companies strive for a growth mindset, many inadvertently foster a fixed mindset through their actions and reactions to certain situations. For example, if you agree with the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or you strictly hold first impressions of an employee thus unintentionally hindering adequate performance appraisals or evaluations(2), you more than likely fall into a fixed mentality. We all have core values and beliefs that can be completely out of our awareness and influence the way we act. The more we become self-aware of how we think ourselves and others should behave or do behave, the more we can generate productive thoughts and elicit growth oriented work interactions. It’s important to know that a growth mindset can be developed and taught. A thriving working environment can be established with a “learn-and-help-learn” framework(1). Mindsets vary by context, so you may find yourself fixed in one aspect of your life or situation, but have a growth mindset in another.

NASA found a way to judge potential by rejecting the idea of fixed ability and opting for growth. Dweck addressed a key concern that applies to businesses in this retrospect, “Who can afford the luxury of trying to grow when everything is on the line right now?”[1 (p. 29)]. When talking optimal performance and over the long-term, a fixed mindset (talent) actually results in hitting an early plateau (with a high chance of losing confidence or ability) and achieving less than the full range of capabilities. There are many benefits of valuing potential (growth mindset) such as: consistent learning, acknowledgement of mistakes, utilization of feedback, and alterations to strategies for better future outcomes. Sure it’s nice to have talented employees, but recognizing that quality is merely the starting point(1). Specifically for managers, embracing and utilizing more of a growth mindset can replace fixed mindset habits and “provide more accurate performance appraisals and helpful employee coaching,” [2 (p. 219)]. It’s critical that you as a leader exemplify a growth mindset first before making it a requirement of potential hires or employees you manage.

It’s possible that as a manager or leader you are fostering a fixed mindset without meaning to do so. Praise or recognition of an employee’s successful outcome or just generally pointing out hard work (“Nice effort on the Smith project”) are examples of feeding a fixed mentality environment. Effective praise involves specific strategy or method recognition. This gives value to the process and implies that the successful result depends on it. Simply praising hard work is a common confusion of the growth mindset(3). Within the hard work, what was the employee able to control? How did they handle the controllables and the uncontrollables? Those fine points are praise worthy because it exemplifies that the ability to change and adjust when needed is what got the desired end result and will service the organization in the long run.

It’s critical that managers and leaders foster an environment that excellent performers can learn and thrive. In order to tap your organization’s full potential your working environment should: promote the learning process of a task or project, emphasize that the actual learning and tenacity involved is prized, and validate that managers should be utilized as coaches, a resource for learning. A growth mindset environment also involves feedback that endorses the “becoming” state of mind and future success(1).

There’s a difference between being a boss and being a leader. Do you strictly exert power over others or do you prize self-transformation and the development of your workers and organization? Can you recognize your own mindset and the implications it has on your employees’ performances that you manage? Now that you are more self-aware of your mindset and how it’s influencing those you lead, take the time to assess how you may or may not be promoting a growth mindset environment in your organization.

For those looking for more information on the Growth Mindset feel free to reach out to HigherEchelon.


  1. “Mindset The New Psychology of Success”, Carol Dweck, 2008
  2. “Managers’ Implicit Assumptions About Personnel”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Peter A. Heslin and Don VandeWalle, June 1, 2008
  3. “Growth Mindset: Clearing up Some Common Confusions”: available KQED News, Eduardo Briceno, November 16, 2015