As I stepped into the working world, I became fascinated by micro-cultures within workplaces, organisations and groups of people working together within a department or division. This micro-cultures had a huge impact on the productivity of teams, the behaviours of its members, the output, the way results are articulated and above all, the well being of the members. Then I came across this old article from Havard Business Review.
I never quite knew about Carol Dweck or her book but I do recognize the term Growth Mindset and this is perhaps something I was directly or indirectly exposed to some point through my teenage when I was growing up. This idea was appealing to me then because I was never taught to think too highly of myself. I’m often kept in check by my parents who reminded me that my sister was more intelligent than me even when I did better in school and so on. I was praised, however, for my hard work and the desire to learn and improve myself. That constant feedback on my effort and the small wins that I secure encouraged me and allowed me to go farther in stretching myself.
I was surprised that the writer used Jack Welch as an example of a leader who fosters growth mindset in the organisation and encourages employees to grow. Because I imagined General Electric to be the sort of survival of the fittest organisation where the top quintile was richly rewarded and the bottom quintile was fired and replaced. That bell curve GE approach to performance appraisal stuck in my head because like probably many other workers of big bureaucratic organisations, that was pretty much the approach towards talent management. And to me, that is what a fixed mindset, ‘star’ organisation was like – they name and crown winners and allow them to keep on winning. When one stays in such organisation for too long, one takes on the fixed mindset and that necessarily affects his productivity, and willingness to work hard.
For instance, employees at companies with a fixed mindset often said that just a small handful of “star” workers were highly valued. The employees who reported this were less committed than employees at growth-mindset companies and didn’t think the company had their back. They worried about failing and so pursued fewer innovative projects. They regularly kept secrets, cut corners, and cheated to try to get ahead.
The Right Combination
Keeping secrets, cheating to get ahead, cutting corners all sound pretty nasty and value-destroying. And of course, the employees themselves are as culpable as the culture they reside in but isn’t it amazing that we continue to perpetuate micro-cultures in organisation that do this. Yet why was Jack Welch heralded for the growth mindset? It was the other practices he brought in to encourage growth and give opportunities for mobility within this whole bell curve exercise.
He hired according to “runway,” not pedigree, preferring Big 10 graduates and military veterans to Ivy Leaguers, and spent thousands of hours grooming and coaching employees on his executive team—activities that demonstrate a recognition of people’s capacity for growth.
In that sense, the bell curve appraisal approach must be combined with proper hiring practices in place that would actually encourage overall organisation growth. By adopting just the tool to encourage competition amongst employees without encouraging the culture of sharing and passion for learning, the organisation exacerbates the ills of a fixed-mindset organisation.
Growth-mindset organizations are likely to hire from within their ranks, while fixed-mindset organizations reflexively look for outsiders. And whereas fixed-mindset organizations typically emphasize applicants’ credentials and past accomplishments, growth-mindset firms value potential, capacity, and a passion for learning.
Singapore organisations suffer this way disproportionately; being a society transfixed with past credentials, accomplishments, rather than potential and capacity, we are allowing our genuine potential suffer when we don’t pay attention to our micro-cultures or hold our CEOs accountable for these aspects of organisation performance. To make matters worse, culture is a long-term matter while organisations are typically organised to deliver results year on year. CEOs with short (planned or unplanned) tenure aiming for quick results pays little attention to creating a good culture or designing a growth-oriented organisation.
As a director interviewing CEOs, ask them questions about people and their perspective on manpower. Whether they are theory X or theory Y is an important hint to the kind of cultures they will foster. As middle management, focus on caring for your people and creating the friendly, growth-oriented micro-culture within your sphere of influence in order to provide a divisional best-practice that the entire organisation can imitate or learn from. As an employee, provide formal and informal feedback relentlessly about culture, about the signal that management sends to employees through their actions, policies, and practices. Don’t allow management to dominate feedback conversations (they have sufficient opportunities at appraisals already).
Finally, as a CEO, ask yourself if you care more about your paycheck or leaving a genuine legacy in where you’ll be. Do you have that stillness of mind and firmness of principle when you take on the role and promise to deliver? As visible as the evidence of hard output and results may be a reflection of the CEO’s competence, they are short-lived compared to the lasting legacy and wonderful memories of a leader who cared and changed their lives and mindsets.