Thanks to a post on The Frontal Cortex, I learned about Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, which includes the self-conceptions people use to guide their behavior. And at ITConversation‘s Tech Nation, I found a podcast of Moira Gunn’s interview with Dweck.

Dweck describes her concept of fixed mindset and growth mindset, and the influences these have on a person’s ability to learn or to cope with setbacks. My quick explanation: with a fixed mindset, you’re inclined to think that while you may be able to learn new things, you’re not really going to get any smarter — intelligence is a fixed capacity, like the volume in your gas tank. A growth mindset says that you can and do learn from difficulties, setbacks, errors, and so forth.

Dweck discusses research with students that bear out the points she makes. For example:

People with a fixed mindset do not have an accurate view [of themselves]… because they try to block out negative information. Negative information is threatening, damaging, so they try to explain away their failures, or take easy things that they can do instead of hard things, or compare themselves to people who are dumber or less talented or less handsome or less popular.

As a result, they lose sight of who they are. For the sake of their egos, they’ve impression-managed themselves into an inflated view.

But in the growth mindset, you need accurate information in order to learn and grow properly. You need to know if you’re bad at this, or you’re offending people, or you’re going down the completely wrong road. You need to know that now, not ten years in the future when it’s too late.

Gunn and Dweck discuss self-esteem as it relates to the growth mindset. Dweck says there’s nothing wrong with self-esteem per se, but that there’s often a belief that “it’s something you can just pump into a child the way you can inflate a tire.”

Praising children for their intelligence can have negative consequences, making them unable to take risks or to cope with adversity (“I guess I’m not smart after all”). In contrast, praising their effort or their strategies when they did well (my emphasis) led 90% of a student group to want to learn new things even if they’d made mistakes. “I guess I need new strategies.”

Dweck relates these concepts to the workplace as well:

When you’re at the top, sometimes you feel you should know everything, you shouldn’t make mistakes… that is part of the fixed mindset, and that’s part of the kiss of death.

The CEOs, the big shots who really act like students, act like learners, go down into the trenches, see what’s happening in the company, ask the board of directors to challenge them — those are the ones who not only become the most successful, but stay there.

These same individuals, she maintains, tend to nurture those around them and thus encourage growth mindsets.