Growth mind-set has come a long way in the past six months.

This past year, as part of an industry research project, the NeuroLeadership Institute conducted 20 in-depth interviews with some of the world’s largest organizations. The goal was to learn more about how leaders personalize and implement growth mind-set–the belief that you can always get better at something through effort (and time), and that people are motivated to do their work as a result of their desire to grow.

We discovered quite a bit, and found ourselves most intrigued by the myths about growth mind-set, which included the idea that growth mind-set referred only to a focus on profits, or that it meant an employee’s plate could endlessly expand to take on more tasks.

Along the same lines, some leaders thought that growth mind-set meant that talent was irrelevant, and that people with a growth mind-set could achieve anything. While admirable, this attitude may distract employees from the work they do best and cause performance to suffer.

Most of the leaders in our sample were putting growth mind-set to use roughly in terms that help employees grow and succeed. But for those that bought into the myths, the science of learning offers a valuable window into how to improve in the future.


Growth mind-set, like algebra or playing the piano, comes with a bit of a learning curve. For instance, it requires an understanding that at times, we fall into a fixed mind-set–the belief that traits are set in stone (and you’ll always be that terrible cook you once were). In these cases, our task is to tilt toward growth and tell ourselves that those traits are, indeed, malleable. Indeed, it may be most accurate to say we use a whole panoply of growth and fixed mind-sets, depending on the skill we’re employing.

When people are set on doing the work to build their growth mind-set, many will rely on the same strategies that they use for learning other skills. Specifically, the brain will look to personalize the concept by weaving it into mental structures that already exist. It’s a well-established component of learning: People retain things better when they can connect a new idea to old ones.

Just as we might develop ingenious mnemonic devices in math class or practice songs we enjoy listening to, leaders can tailor their interpretation of growth mind-set based on what means the most to them. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we have a saying that captures this phenomenon: “Meaning makes memory.”

That’s great for retention, but it doesn’t guarantee accuracy. Dangers may arise if leaders start projecting incorrect meanings onto growth mind-set that don’t fit the scientific concept. An overwhelmed leader, for example, might interpret growth mind-set to be a never-ending workload because that interpretation helps solve their problem. And it’s probably not surprising that a leader who conflates growth mind-set with profits is worried about next quarter’s earnings. Because they prioritize productivity and profits, they may interpret growth mind-set through those lenses.


With those insights in mind, leaders can get the most out of growth mind-set by staying true to its definition: a focus on improving–rather than proving–themselves. Research suggests they should look for overlaps between the issues that matter most to them, and what growth mind-set entails. This is another crucial aspect to cultivating a growth mind-set culture. Leaders need to communicate an accurate definition of growth mind-set, and model it in their behavior.

As our research has indicated, growth mind-set doesn’t have to come at the expense of concrete business results, and leaders can utilize them to complement and reinforce those goals. Leaders should be deliberate in how they frame expected outcomes with their team members. For instance, when leaders are discussing sales figures, they can ask about critical learnings from past deals that went well, and those that fell through. Both quantitative and qualitative growth can be examined, as well as how one reinforces the other. By getting clear on growth mind-set, you can get clear on how it fits into your growth strategy overall.

Originally published on Fast Company.

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  • David Rock

    Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer NeuroLeadership Institute

    Dr. David Rock coined the term ‘Neuroleadership’ and is the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development. With operations in 24 countries, the Institute also helps large organizations operationalize brain research in order to develop better leaders and managers. David co-edits the NeuroLeadership Journal and heads up an annual global summit. He has authored many of the central academic papers that have defined the Neuroleadership field, and presents this research at prestigious leadership conferences around the world each year. In 2015, he presented at the White House as part of a thought leader series hosted by the Office of Personnel Management. David is the author of the business best seller Your Brain at Work (Harper Business, 2009), as well as Quiet Leadership (Harper Collins, 2006), and the textbook Coaching with the Brain in Mind (Wiley & Sons, 2009). He blogs for the Harvard Business Review, Fortune Magazine, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post. He is quoted widely in the media about leadership, organizational effectiveness, and the brain. Academically, David is on the faculty and advisory board of CIMBA, an international business school based in Europe, and is a guest lecturer at many universities including Oxford University’s Said Business School. He is on the board of the BlueSchool, an initiative in New York City building a new approach to education. He received his professional doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University in 2010.
  • Andrea Derler

    Fast Company