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Talent Is All in the Mind

Humorist Robert Benchley once said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”

Prof. Carol Dweck of Stanford can be counted in that first group, at least for the purposes of psychological research. Her studies— some recounted in her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—suggest that there’s a big difference in the way two groups of people approach learning: those with so-called fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets. It’s a difference that affects everything from the way kids approach their schoolwork to the way managers approach their employees. And it might even determine the amount of perceived “talent” that organizations have at their disposal, now and in the future.

The idea is that people tend to view intelligence as either fixed traits that are virtually impossible to influence (as in, “you have it or you don’t”) or as traits that can be expanded through the development process. Students with fixed mindsets, for example, view intelligence as something that’s “carved in stone,” states Dweck, so they’re always worried about whether they have enough of it. Students with growth mindsets, however, see intelligence as something they can develop and so feel capable of continuing to master new things (“Students’ View...,” 2007).

These differences in attitude can make a real difference in learning, and, even more compelling, these attitudes can be shaped through interventions. Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell of Columbia conducted a study – the findings of which were recently published in Child Development magazine – of seventh-grade students who were underperforming in math. The children were randomly assigned to two eight-week workshops. One was a control group that taught students study skills, and the other group mixed study skills training with information about how the brain learns and grows (Trei 2007). The idea was to instill in these students a growth mindset when it comes to intelligence.

Not only did the researchers see an improvement in the grades and study habits of the second group, compared with the first, but teachers were later asked to identify students who exhibited positive changes. These teachers, who didn’t know about the study or the two workshops, tended to choose students who’d been in the growth mindset group. Explaining why the intervention would make such a difference, Dweck notes, “When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections. When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was working” (“Students’ View...,” 2007).

The flip side to all this is that telling children that they are smart tends to give them a fixed mindset, one that—other research indicates—actually causes them to avoid new and more difficult challenges. Why? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck writes, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Children who are praised for their hard work, however, are much more likely to be eager to take on new challenges (Bronson, 2007). Students with a growth mindset also tend to be more resilient if they fail and feel more assured about future success. And, they simply enjoy learning more (Rodgers 2006).

The roles of fixed versus growth mindsets in the workplace are still being explored, but some research indicates that they play a critical role. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (2006), authors of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, have looked at the research of Dweck and her colleagues in light of performance management practices. “People who believe intelligence and ability are fixed tend to see performance results mostly in terms of assessing where they stand on the distribution of capability. By contrast, people who see intelligence as malleable see poor performance as an indicator that they need to make more effort, acquire more skills, or do something else to boost their scores,” the authors wrote.

Fixed and growth mindsets also seem to play a role in talent development within organizations. Some research indicates that managers who see employee talent levels as relatively fixed and unchangeable are not as likely to try helping or coaching others. An article published last year in Personnel Psychology indicates that a manager’s mindset can predict the degree to which he or she coaches employees. That is, managers who believe people can change tend to provide more coaching (Heslin, Vandewalle, and Latham 2006).

The researchers also looked at how certain managers – those who see employees as basically unalterable – responded to workshops that illustrate how people can change. They found that such workshops boosted these managers’ willingness to coach, the number of coaching suggestions they made, and the quality of coaching (Heslin, Vandewalle, & Latham, 2006).

The bottom line is that the mindsets of people matter. They matter to their ability to learn new things, their readiness to take on new challenges, and even their willingness to help others learn. This willingness and ability to learn could play a major role in the talent development process, and the old saying that “attitude is everything” could turn out to be as much truth as truism.

Documents referenced in this TrendWatcher include the following:

Bronson, Po. “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.” New York Magazine, February 19, 2007.
Heslin, Peter A., Don Vandewalle, and Gary P Latham. “Keen to Help? Managers’ Implicit Person Theories and Their Subsequent Employee Coaching.” Personnel Psychology. ABI/INFORM. Winter 2006.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey and Robert Sutton. “The Real Brain Teaser.” People Management, April 20, 2006.
Rodgers, Joann Ellison. “Altered Ego: The New View of Personality Change.” Psychology Today, November-December 2006.
“Students’ View of Intelligence Can Help Grades.” Morning Edition. ProQuest. February 15, 2007.
Trei, Lisa. “New Study Yields Instructive Results on How Mindset Affects Learning.” Stanford Report, February 7, 2007.