Growth Mindset
February 2, 2022

Why data & analytics leaders need the real meaning of a Growth Mindset

By Paul Laughlin

Do you view yourself as having a Growth Mindset or a Fixed Mindset. Let’s be honest now, just between the two of us, do you really know what those terms mean? I only ask because in this post I am going to confess that I didn’t. I thought I understood but I had it all wrong & I think the difference matters.

The trigger for my clearer understanding was when I read Developing Mental Toughness” by Strycharczyk, Clough & Perry. I mentioned in my review of that book that the authors show how well their model aligns with other models of mindsets & thinking. As well as exploring the role of Positive Psychology, they also explain why their concept of Mental Toughness aligns well with a Growth Mindset.

As well as hoping that the content of this post is helpful, I want to do some role modelling. I encourage leaders to be honest & vulnerable. To admit their mistakes and be visibly still learning & growing. So, let me do that for you my readers. Here’s the story of what I misunderstood & why I think an accurate understanding of a Growth Mindset is relevant for analysts & their leaders.

How did I get it so wrong? From Growth to Abundance & back.

So, let’s get straight to it. What did I think Growth Mindset meant? What was my miscomprehension? Well, I wrongly conflated the concept of Growth Mindset with the popular notion of Abundance (rather than Scarcity) Mindset. The latter is popularised by a number of authors since a more balanced presentation from Stephen Covey and I learnt it from mentor & blogger Michael Hyatt. It is the concept that “there is more where that came from…” In practice this often means feeling confident to give away content or ideas for free because you know you will have more ideas. Whether that is expressed as faith in provision or confidence in your own abilities, you let go of the fear that you might not be able to come up with another great idea or product.

Now, let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with the above concept. I am not criticising such a confidence. However, it is neither what is meant by a Growth Mindset nor is it as grounded in psychological research. To understand that correctly requires going back to the source. That means introducing Prof. Carol Dweck and her 2006 classic “Mindset: the new psychology of success“.

In that book, she shares her research evidence that your attitude of mind is an important determinant of your success in business or education. She defined such a mindset in terms of character, heart, will, etc. Her conclusion was that there are basically two possible mindsets. A Fixed Mindset focusses on ability not effort, assuming you can achieve things because you have the ability. This can lead to a view that success should be effortless, even that needing to put in effort is a sign of failure (or often the blaming of others or wider systems). A Growth mindset by contrast sees challenges as a good thing. Mistakes are acceptable because that is how you learn. Effort and hard work are important, encouraged & perhaps more important than ability alone.

Why does a Growth Mindset matter for analysts?

Given that confession, why do I think the concept of a Growth Mindset matters for analysts? Because I often come across junior analysts who have never had to face failure before. Young data scientists or analysts have often been the brightest in their classes during school & perhaps university. Studying in fields like mathematics, statistics or computer science – they have often been able to know or quickly grasp the correct answer. What has felt like the key to their success has been their intellect, their ability.

I hope that you can see that the above is a mindset that I previously labelled a Fixed Mindset. Such a view of the world can tempt such analysts to see the need to work hard at something as unpleasant or a sign that they have failed (that they are not really ‘smart enough‘).

As you will know, the real world of work for analysts & data scientists is much more messy. Data is dirty, problems & opportunities are poorly understood, progress is full of imperfect solutions & failures. If analysts are living in the ‘brittle‘ experience of a Fixed Mindset, it can be a recipe for disaster. To avoid feelings of self doubt or shame it can be all too tempting to blame others or the system. That company just doesn’t get data. That leader had it in for me. Their systems are so antiquated it’s not worth trying. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the rapid turnover one can see in such roles (or the stereotype of the older jaded analyst who stays to carp from the sidelines).

Why does a Growth Mindset matter for leaders?

That said, I think there is good news here. A correct understanding of the Growth Mindset concept leads us to believe that people can change. That the solution lies in trying and failing but learning. That hard work and effort are worth it because that way we can keep growing & developing our skills & knowledge. People aren’t defined by their ability rather by their willingness to learn (through hard work & reflection).

Such a view of human potential should be a powerful encouragement for any analysts struggling with a challenge that feels too much. It should also steer leaders to take a different approach. All too often I hear businesses looking to hire the next superstar. As if the Fixed Mindset view of the world was best & all they need to do is find that person with the perfect set of skills & knowledge.

If instead they focus on a Growth Mindset perspective then they would hire more on attitude and behaviour. How has this candidate demonstrated an ability to learn? How can they show me that they have the character to persist with a tough challenge & master what they need to learn despite failures along the way? Many experienced leaders know that attitude matters more than technical ability in the long term. This might just be the psychological model to validate that real world experience.

I hope my confession helped you. How could you take a Growth Mindset approach?

So, there you have it. I was wrong. In some ways my understanding of Growth Mindset was more like a Fixed Mindset. My thinking about Abundance Mindset tempted me to take comfort in my own intellect, abilities or existing knowledge. But the good news for me is that a right understanding of Growth Mindset means I can feel positive about my confession. Yes, I had it wrong but by trying to apply & share that I have learn my mistake and now grown in my knowledge and understanding. I am confident that with hard work and persistence I can understand this concept better and apply it more consistently. I can grow.

What about you, dear reader? How could the concept of a Growth Mindset encourage you? Does it challenge you to see the world differently or take a different approach to a problem? If you are a leader, does it encourage you to take a different approach to hiring or developing your staff? Have you just assumed some people can’t understand or master something? Is it just because they don’t yet have that ability? Have you tried investing in training them? Have you given them opportunities to try, fail & prove they can learn & grow via that process? Why not try a Growth Mindset perspective instead this week?