Mindsets are More Important than Skillsets

Report Card ClipartStanford Professor Carol Dweck tells a marvelous story about a Chicago high school I wish I’d attended. When a student receives a report card on a course he or she has not successfully completed, the grade shows as “Not Yet.”

It doesn’t say “Failed,” but rather “Not Yet.”

Think about that for a moment. For me, and clearly for Professor Dweck, that choice of wording is incredibly powerful.

What does “Not Yet” say to that student? It does not say, “You are stupid, you are a loser, you can’t do it.” Instead it says “You didn’t pass this time.” It presumes there will be another time, and it also tells the student “You might pass the course the next time you try.”

Professor Dweck has been studying achievement, learning, and happiness for a long time. She’s written a book called Mindset (Ballantine Books, 2007) in which she identifies two very different ways of experiencing life. And while most of her research has focused on young children and adolescents, her insights are equally important for adults in the workplace.

She describes two distinctively different attitudes, or mindsets, about success and failure (or rather, success and “Not Yet”)

Many children develop what she calls a fixed mindset – one that presumes a person’s intelligence, physical skills, and personality are static and unchanging. That mindset believes that we are who we are, and that we can’t, and don’t, change with new experiences.

In contrast, children who develop a growth mindset believe they can learn, improve their skills, and even change their personalities over time. People with a growth mindset view difficult problems as learning opportunities. They relish challenges, and they thrive on learning new ideas and new skills.

As I’ve been reviewing my own experiences and working on the book about corporate conversations that I’ve mentioned in earlier notes, I have become convinced that leading meetings and designing effective conversations at work is more about having a growth mindset than it is about mastering the skill of running a meeting.

Leaders who relish learning and want to develop their staff’s knowledge and skills conduct meetings that are open, interactive, and collaborative. They want to learn from others’ experiences, and to hear how others think about a particular problem, challenge, or business opportunity. They believe deep down that a team can do more than a collection of individuals – that, to once again quote Rod Collins, “Nobody is smarter than everybody” (the link is to last week’s article with that title).

Effective leaders aren’t threatened by other people who see the world differently, or have different backgrounds and educations; effective leaders thrive by drawing those experiences and ideas out of their staff to create new products, new marketing campaigns, new ways of reporting financial performance.

There is an old management rule of thumb about hiring good people that goes something like this: “A people hire A staff; B people hire C staff.” In other words, smart effective leaders surround themselves with other smart effective people. Some successful leaders even brag about hiring people smarter than they are.

The Key Idea here is to complement your own skills, and extend the capabilities of your team into areas where you know you aren’t leading edge. What better way to get up to speed in a new domain than to surround yourself with people who can teach you about it?

But what leads some people to have a growth mindset, while so many others maintain a fixed mindset?

Ironically, children (and adults) who have been praised for being smart – for having achieved something – tend to develop a fixed mindset, a belief that they are who they are. And when they face challenges they cannot overcome, they give up and often get angry or resentful, presuming the challenge is simply beyond their level of ability.

On the other hand, children and adults who are praised for trying, for being willing to tackle a tough challenge, develop self-concepts that identify them as learners, as being willing to try, as being able to learn and grow. In short, they build a growth mindset – a positive outlook that finds learning fun.

Keep Calm and Give Yourself a Pat on the Back


For me the most important aspect of Professor Dweck’s research is that she has proven conclusively that a growth mindset can be taught; her workshops have changed kids’ lives as well as the beliefs and attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians about each other. Now that’s an accomplishment!

So as team leaders and meeting leaders, praise your staff for their efforts, almost regardless of the outcomes. And give yourself a pat on the back for trying to generate open, collaborative conversations, even when you don’t get what you hoped for. Give your team time to learn and grow, and, to use another well-worn phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

And I’ll close by asking you to go back and reread “To Live is to Learn,” where I told the story of how Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM refused to fire a project manager who had just completed a $6 million project that “failed.”

Note: if you’d like to hear Carol Dweck describing her mindset research in her own words, here are two recent presentations on YouTube:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Happiness and Its Causes 2013, October 20, 2013

The Power of Yet,” TEDx Norrköping, September 12, 2014

Final Note: I want to thank my good friend Candace Fitzpatrick, founder of CoreClarity, for pointing me to Mindset and Carol Dweck.

3 replies
  1. Erik
    Erik says:

    Hi Jim,

    Again, quite interesting. The ‘not yet’ youtube should be spread to parents of the world.

    So, how would ‘not yet’ equate to leadership and today’s management?
    I sometimes reflect to failure as follows:
    Mistakes are part of life and hence of working. Everyone makes mistakes. Making a mistake will often cost you in some way or another: you will always ‘pay’ for the mistake.

    Question is, since you already paid for it, are you going to get something out of it or not: learning from it.
    This sounds great and managerial in itself, but in the ‘land of management’ the phenomenon of ‘mistake’ seems to be a taboo still.
    Musculine approaches dominate conversations between managers, so it seems, like statements as: ‘I am used to completing my projects wiithin time and budget, with highly satisfied customers afterwards’.

    Is this a disease of management then? I doubt it. Just to reflect on our personal lives:
    Do we accept our doctors to make a mistake when treating us?
    Mmm. not reallly eh? Mistakes result in prosecution for high levels of financial compentation, driving up the cost of healthcare to insane levels. In the end patients and the potential patients pay: all those insuring themselves against future cost of treatment. As a community of patients we should not be surprised about reluctance of the medical world to be fully transparent: we cannot handle the truth (ref: Jack Nicolson in ‘A Few Good Men” :-).

    So, towards the elements of handling mistakes effectively, I would grade us as ‘not yet’.

    Jim, I do support your article as pointing to this as one of the key factors for leadership.

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