What is a growth mindset?

Keith Varty | 07 November 2018

What are the psychological and cultural conditions that enable us to flourish as individuals, teams and organisations?

Can a growth mindset really be the difference to a better life – Matthew Syed thinks so.

A few years back over a couple of pints in a pub in Soho after work with some friends, the conversation had reached its normal stage on the merits of our individual football teams which is always given a particularly large dose of vociferous banter.  For some reason we got onto the subject of ‘natural talent’ and one of my friends was challenging the very notion of it, based on a book he’d recently read called Bounce. At the time I remember thinking how it could be that this isn’t a thing, for nearly all my life it had been the justification for any (mostly sporting) individual that had a talent that was clearly so much better than his or her peers.

A couple of weeks later having read the book by Matthew Syed I was a complete convert, to the degree that if I heard friends/people talk about an individual with natural talent I’d (probably irritatingly) take them to task.  Now I’m not one to glamorise a situation – I’m a Brit after all – but Bounce really did change not only my view of natural talent but more importantly how I saw the opportunity for my three children.  You see Matthew Syed’s view is that forget natural talent, you get to be who you want to be through two things; circumstance and practise. 

Fast forward to November 1st2018 and I’m sitting in London’s ExCel arena waiting for Matthew Syed to wrap up Microsoft’s very good 2-day conference entitled Future Decoded.

Psychological and cultural conditions needed to flourish

Matthew sets the scene, he’s going to spend 30 minutes giving his perspective on what the psychological and cultural conditions that enable us to flourish as individuals, teams and organisations are.

Matthew opens with a quick bio – he was the UK’s number 1 table tennis player for 10 years and played in a couple of Olympics and won 3 Commonwealth titles – Matthew’s a confident but self-deprecating character who plays down these achievements, we find out his first interesting and surprising fact; more than half of the top players in the country came from the same street as him – that’s odd... And at the end of this street was a table tennis club that had a fantastic coach and 24-hour access – ok that’s starting to make a little more sense.

The fixed and growth mindset

He then segues into a branch of psychological research that probes into how different cohorts of people view success and where high performance comes from. And broadly speaking you reach 2 different types of answers. The first is the sometimes-called fixed mindset where people typically talk about: talent, having a high IQ, having the right pre-disposition or aptitude or the right genetic inheritance and that if you want a successful team or organisation you need to hire people of that ilk. And on that face of it, many of us would agree that this isn’t false, after all talent is a real phenomenon and is an explanation for some of the variables most of us see in performance.

Conversely, in what is sometimes called the growth mindset, talent whilst not irrelevant isn’t, in a complex world, enough.  The focus is on other more deeply predictive measures of success such as disciplined practise, constant self-evaluation and crucially a recognition that however good I am, even if I’m a genius, even if I’m a leader of one of the most prestigious institutes in the world I can still get better. This turns out to be of incalculable psychological significance because it enables people to do something that is otherwise challenging, for some people threatening – namely, learning from mistakes and failures.

Now it’s not quite as binary as that you have either a fixed or growth mindset – most people are on a spectrum somewhere between the two. But what this does allow you to do, based on effectively the answer to one question, is (using randomised double-blind control trials) measure behaviour which turns out to be radically different depending on where you are at on the spectrum. This dichotomy of fixed and growth mindset explains a great deal about the differential we see in performance.

Aviation and healthcare

Matthew then demonstrates how these contrast in mindsets and the different behavioural dynamics play out in two safety critical industries; aviation and healthcare - who have fundamentally different performance outcomes that map to fixed and growth mindsets.

In aviation, when it comes to the key objective of system safety, aviation displays a growth mindset because of its inherent culture of continuous improvement. There is a recognition deep in the culture that even though they are smart and talented and deploy sensible protocols, procedures and behaviours, the system is sub-optimal. And that’s not because the individuals and businesses lack intelligence – far from it – it is purely because they understand the deep complexities that lie within the industry.

As a result, the minds of the professionals and the industry are open to the learning opportunities, that are always out there in a complex world, but are very easy to neglect. Collecting data and the analysis of it is deeply rooted in this industry, as is learning the lessons to drive a dynamic process of change. And even in the darkest moment, in the event of a crash, the reasons why are recorded through the ‘black box’ - meaning its failures are data rich. 

The effect of all of this on the most critical of metrics is quite profound. In 1912 more than half of the US army pilots died in crashes, fast forward to 2017 and there were no accidents. We are now at a ratio of 1 crash to every 17 million take-offs, a staggering safety record.

Matthew then contrasts this with healthcare where the senior people are arguably more talented, have longer and more expensive educations, on average higher IQ’s and something quite deep in clinical culture that says when you get to the top you don’t make mistakes - you’re that talented in diagnostic reasoning and clinical intuition you just get the answer right. But what happens when there is a sub-optimal outcome such as death, unlike in aviation where there is the opportunity to learn, to ensure it doesn’t happen again, there is a measurable tendency towards self-justification and concealment. And thinking about the psychological dynamic of self-justification; if I’m super bright and I get everything right and someone’s died then it can’t be anything to do with me, it must be an unavoidable death right…err, no wrong actually…

According to the journal of patient safety, 200,000 people die every year in the US because of preventable medical error, the third biggest killer in the country. Matthew draws the conclusion therefore that this is not a lack of talent but simply a mindset that is closed to the idea of continuous improvement.

Matthew quotes other examples taken from his book ‘Black Box Thinking’ of the negative correlations between a talent metric and performance when people are in a fixed mindset. Put simply the growth mindset means that talent really doesn’t matter, it’s about liberating our talents to see the data for what it is. Being an expert isn’t just about what we do know, it’s about finding out what we don’t know.

Satya Nadella

Matthew also discusses the time he spent with Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s visionary leader of the last 4 years, a man often described as humble. Satya himself, felt the need to move Microsoft from a fixed to a growth mindset stating that when he took over as CEO the organisation had a critical mass of ‘know it all’s’. Everybody wanted to look like the smartest person in the room which conversely meant they didn’t want to hear about the errors, the failures, the deficiencies in the product line, what the competitors were doing better.  Pivoting to something better would be a threat to the image of the smartest person in the room.

And Matthew argues, this mindset suppresses the flow of creativity and innovation.  Satya wanted to shift from a culture of ‘know it all’s’ to a culture of ‘learn it all’s’ – they are people who wanted to know about the mistakes and the failures and the opportunities for growth. As a result, there has been a measurable change in the psychological environment and the social dynamic in Microsoft felt by everybody you talk to who works there.

David Beckham

And then finally as if bring to bring it all back to the worlds most popular sport, Matthew talks about his more recent association with footballers and in particular David Beckham; a man who had a seemingly unique skill for crossing a football with unbelievable accuracy, a natural talent some would say – but read a little more about David Beckham and you’ll find out that it was the sheer number of hours he put into practising this art that made him so good, possibly the best the world has ever seen.

Matthew Syed is an Arsenal fan, I’m a Tottenham fan – I shouldn’t like him, but I do!


Data analytics Behavioural dynamics David Beckham Growth mindset High performance Matthew Syed