An interview with Carol Dweck Ph.D., professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

In this piece, excerpted from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) podcast, The Right Mindset for Success, Sarah Green interviews Carol Dweck about the leadership qualities that lead to successful efforts.

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SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. Today, we're going to be asking why some people reach their potential while other people who are just as talented do not. To do that, we're going to dig into the science of persistence and praise with Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol, thanks so much for talking with us.

CAROL DWECK: It is a pleasure to be here today.

SARAH GREEN: Your research has shown that the talented people who find success have a growth mindset. Tell us a little bit about what a growth mindset is exactly.

CAROL DWECK: Let me start with a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is when people believe their basic qualities, their intelligence, their talents, their abilities, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that's that. But other people have a growth mindset. They believe that even basic talents and abilities can be developed over time through experience, mentorship, and so on. And these growth minded people are the people who go for it!  They're not always worried about how smart they are, how they'll look, or what a mistake will mean. They challenge themselves and grow.

SARAH GREEN: So I think we've all experienced the strange sensation of going back to a high school reunion… and seeing the person you thought was going to be the next President of the United States or something whose career has just not panned out. In that case, you never intend to be that person. You never intend to be the person who has the fixed mindset. So how does someone fall into that trap?

CAROL DWECK: That's a great example because you think, “Oh, this person is most likely to succeed. They've gotten the A's. They're president of the student body.” But because of their success, they may have fallen into a fixed mindset. They may have believed all the hype - the idea that they just “have it” - and they become afraid of making mistakes. They become afraid of tarnishing their image.

And because they are fearful of venturing out of their comfort zone, they don't take the risks or develop the abilities they are capable of. You go back to the same reunion, and you see people you thought were not likely to succeed, and they've really done amazing things. These are the people who maybe did not have an image to uphold, did not feel the weight of other people's expectations, and just followed their passions and developed their abilities.

SARAH GREEN: Is this a conundrum that we can get into at any time? If you become CEO of a company, say, at 45 or 55, can you suddenly find yourself falling into the same trap?

CAROL DWECK: It's possible. Many people have told me that when they were promoted into a prestigious position, they suddenly felt, “Now I have to have all the answers. Now, my period of growth is over. I have to be a fully mature person who knows everything.” So yes, at any point, you can fall into that trap. People who become CEOs suddenly feel they have to be gods or goddesses, and not people who say, “Gee, I don't know. Let's talk about it. Let's think about it. Let's feel our way through this problem.”

SARAH GREEN: So how can we go about making sure, in our own selves, that we stay in the growth mindset or we encourage the growth mindset if we may recognize that that's not where we are most comfortable?

CAROL DWECK: We have to keep the hallmarks of a growth mindset in mind. In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, “Oh, I'm going to reveal my weaknesses,” you say, “Wow, here's a chance to grow.” If you find yourself afraid of challenges, get yourself into a growth mindset, and think about all of the growth potential in following this opportunity, even if it is out of your comfort zone.

If you react to a setback defensively, wanting to hide it, wanting to make up excuses for it, you're in a fixed mindset. Instead, ask “What can I learn from this experience that can help me go forward next time?” In the fixed mindset, you're so focused on the outcome. Will I look good? Will I live up to my reputation? Will people think I'm brilliant?

In a growth mindset, you're focused on the process.  Specifically, you focus on the process that you engage in to bring about your successes and the processes you engaged in that may have created your failures, but you can learn from them and do better the next time.  To do this, every time you feel yourself sinking into fixed mindset thinking, worrying about a challenge, feeling measured by a setback, worrying about the outcome rather than the process, try to slip yourself over into more growth mindset thinking.

SARAH GREEN: And what if you're trying to encourage a growth mindset in someone who's reporting to you?  For instance, many managers would like to have someone who is the straight A student, who they can hire and think that they will get right to work.  I think it can be baffling for some people when someone that talented doesn't perform up to standard. If you want to push someone who's really talented into a growth mindset, how would you proceed?

CAROL DWECK: Great question. First of all, you are correct, a lot of companies hire people with great pedigree, and “straight As.” However, Patrick Welsh once said, these pedigrees don't tell you about the passion and the drive to get things done. So what message should a manager or leader give to new recruits that would put them into more of a growth mindset?

First, I think the message from the top is really important: that we value passion, dedication, growth, and learning, not genius.

Second, we don't expect that you arrive here fully formed. We expect that you have arrived ready to learn.

Third, we expect you to stretch beyond your comfort zone and take reasonable risks, not to do the same thing you're good at over and over and stay in your comfort zone.

Fourth, we value process here, and we reward process. We reward taking on big but reasonable challenges. We reward pursuing challenges doggedly. We reward teamwork. And even if a project has not reached fruition or become successful, we reward that you've engaged in it a wholehearted and intelligent way.

So the companies now that are thriving are the ones that give this message. What’s more, my research has shown, contrary to popular opinion, that you do not praise talent. You do not praise ability. You praise process.

SARAH GREEN: Would you talk a little more about that because that is a piece of research that has changed the way my friends who are parents actually praise their kids, and I just think it's fascinating.

CAROL DWECK: We've done a great deal of work now showing that praising someone's talent puts that person into a fixed mindset. The whole Self-Esteem Movement taught us erroneously that praising intelligence, talent, and abilities would foster self-confidence, a higher self-esteem, and everything great would follow. But we have found that this sort of praise backfires. People who are praised for talent begin to worry about their next performances and about taking on hard tasks.  They begin to fear that they will not look talented, tarnishing that reputation for brilliance. So instead, they stick to their comfort zone and get really defensive when they hit setbacks.

So what should we praise? The effort, the strategies, the doggedness and persistence, the grit people show, the resilience that they show in the face of obstacles, that bouncing back when things go wrong and knowing what to try next. A huge part of promoting a growth mindset in the workplace is to convey those values of process, to give feedback, to reward people engaging in the process, and not just a successful outcome.

SARAH GREEN: I want to ask you a little bit about the flip side of that, about giving negative feedback.  I think we've all been in situations at work where we've worked on something where the project has come up short. It's not good enough. And in those situations, there's a natural tendency to say, “Well, but we worked really hard on it!”  And then, usually the answer comes back, “Well, that doesn't matter. The product isn't good enough.” So what's a better way to have that kind of interaction?

CAROL DWECK: I think that kind of conversation can be critical. And I think the person who's giving the feedback needs to focus, as I'm saying, on the process as well - not just the effort.  Everyone is putting in-- or believing that they're putting in-- a lot of effort to everything.  To learn from the experience you describe, people can reflect about how they engaged in the process, maybe as a team.  I would ask what strategies they tried, how they gauged when and whether those strategies were being successful, whether they were sensitive enough to change strategies when they were starting to get negative feedback. I would be interested in how they went forward, how they corrected themselves, and why in the end it might not have worked, and what they might do differently next time.

One CEO I talked to recently said he rewards that value added, being able to put knowledge and skills back into the company, even when a project itself has not been successful.

SARAH GREEN: Can you say a little more about that. What you mean by “putting back into the company?”

CAROL DWECK: What did a team or a person learn from an effort even when it wasn't successful? Many successful people-- Einstein, Thomas Edison-- have said they have learned more often from their failures than from their successes. So many huge breakthroughs came after a number of huge failures that provided learning experiences. You are not going to reward someone just because they failed, obviously not. But what did the journey teach them that will help them and others in the company become successful the next time?

So as people are engaging in a process or project, they are monitoring what worked and what didn't with an eye toward the future. And the more they can feed that back into the company to make it more a communal learning experience, the more that is reward worthy.

SARAH GREEN:  …so many of your studies and a lot of your research has focused on students and how they respond to praise....I'm realizing that a lot of what we are talking about is reprogramming ourselves or people we work with from ways we have been used to experiencing praise and thinking about success. How would you think our education system would be better able to produce people who were persistent, creative, innovative people, life-long risk-taking learners? How would our education system need to change in order to produce people like that?

CAROL DWECK: That's a great question. We've always produced creative people, the mavericks. And I'm worried now, with all the emphasis on high stakes testing, doing well on the test, getting perfect scores, that we are subverting what we've always been good at. I think the message has to go out in the educational system, and I'm working really hard with leaders to do this, that the name of the game is learning.

We actually have a program for students that teaches them that they're in charge of their brains, that their brain is kind of like a muscle that grows stronger with use, and that every time they stretch themselves to learn something new, their brains form new connections, and they get smarter over time. We want to empower students to be motivated to grow their brains, and that's done by stretching, by being passionate about something, by learning new things, by welcoming things that are hard, by seeing a period of confusion as a period that's going to create new neurons.

The more our classrooms are organized around stretching, and growing, and being comfortable with confusion and setbacks, the more we are going to create growth mindset students and growth mindset leaders.

SARAH GREEN: It's interesting because I think that to be comfortable with confusion takes a certain amount of boldness, not just on the person who's learning, but on the teacher or the manager as well. You have to be OK with your people who you're trying to lead being confused.

CAROL DWECK: Yes, and you have to be OK with yourself being confused because teachers and managers need growth mindsets, not just about the students or employees, they need it for themselves. A teacher, a leader, they are learners. They are the ones that are leading us in learning and should be modeling being confused, being comfortable, being out of their comfort zone, knowing how to go get information or create teams that'll move us out of a period of confusion into clarity. So they need growth mindsets about their own skills, their own talents, their own abilities over time.

SARAH GREEN: And what strikes me is that this is something that, no matter what your actual talent level or ability level is, it seems applicable. If you go back to our education system, most of the national discussion focuses on the students it's not serving at the lower end, the C students who aren't getting by. But as we've been talking today, a lot about it doesn't really work for the A students either who are getting those easy A's and learning that success should come easily. And I could see the same thing happening in a corporation.

CAROL DWECK: Yes, our research shows that all the success and all the praise is leading the people at the top of the heap to think, “Yes, I have it. I'm the person who doesn't have to work hard to be smart. I'm the person who's already smart.” Students who have coasted to easy As learn the name of the game is to do it without looking like you're straining. So yes, I think the people at the top have fallen into bad habits.  This is a time of tremendous change where, like it or not, you're going to have periods of confusion. Like it or not, you're going to turn into a novice over and over again. We need to be comfortable with struggle, not just effort, but struggle and confusion.

SARAH GREEN: Well, it sounds a little bit exhausting but also very rewarding, I think. Carol, thank you again, so much. I just really, really enjoyed this conversation.

CAROL DWECK: I enjoyed it greatly.

SARAH GREEN: That was Stanford's Carol Dweck. Her book is Mindset. For more, visit www.hbr.org