Firms should look for learners, not geniuses

Firms should look for learners, not geniuses

A growth mindset allows people respond more adaptively to challenges


Carissa Romero

A growth-mindset company focuses on how the company helps employees to grow


A growth-mindset company focuses on how the company helps employees to grow

 Research shows that people who believe abilities and talents can be developed – a “growth mindset” – are on average more successful than people who believe abilities and talents are fixed – a “fixed mindset”. A growth mindset allows people to respond more adaptively to challenges and setbacks. It turns out companies can have mindsets too, and that these mindsets influence their ability to attract people from underrepresented backgrounds.

In a recent US study by Katherine Emerson and Mary Murphy, researchers asked men and women to view company websites; one portrayed a growth-mindset culture and one a fixed-mindset culture. The fixed-mindset company talked, for example, about hiring employees “who have the intelligence and abilities that we are looking for”. The growth-mindset company focused on how the company helps employees to grow. After reading these descriptions on company websites, women trusted the growth-mindset company more.

Why? They believed that when a company emphasises fixed traits, that company is more likely to form stereotypes – that is, to apply fixed traits to groups and that its managers are less likely to view women as smart, qualified or assertive. A growth-mindset company, on the other hand, is less likely to rely on stereotypes.

Here are three ways to create a more attractive and inclusive environment for employees from different backgrounds.

Reward smart risk-taking, not just outcomes Most companies recognise employees when they get a promotion or achieve some form of objective success. Focusing only on outcomes can create a sense that failure or mistakes should be avoided.

Employees who worry that they’ll be stereotyped as having low ability may be especially likely to avoid risks if only outcomes are valued. Companies should acknowledge employees when they take smart risks, even if those risks don’t lead to the desired outcome. For example, an advertising agency in New York created the “Heroic Failure Award” to reward employees for taking big, edgy (but reasonable) risks.

Discuss mistakes openly

Companies that want to benefit from diverse perspectives should discuss mistakes openly. At Etsy, for example, engineers send company-wide emails confessing their mistakes. This practice encourages people to think about mistakes as learning opportunities rather than signs of incompetence.

Not only does it mitigate fear of failure, but it helps the whole company learn more quickly by publicly sharing lessons from mistakes. Here’s a fascinating and relevant example of companies admitting and discussing mistakes: an increasing number of firms now publicise how few women and underrepresented minorities they have in leadership positions, and solicit ways of improving their numbers.

Recruit learners, not ‘natural geniuses’ A recent study found that fields whose practitioners believe “brilliance” is the main requirement for success have fewer women, because women are stereotyped as less likely to possess this trait.

The researchers suggest that the results have implications for African-Americans as well, who face similar stereotypes about innate abilities. When a field signals that inborn traits are more important than hard work, it seems to discourage women from choosing that field, since they worry they won’t be given a fair evaluation.

Companies that want to attract diverse talent should emphasise that they are looking for people who are excited to learn. In addition to attracting candidates from a range of backgrounds, this attracts people who are more likely to take risks, bounce back from setbacks and learn from their mistakes – all key ingredients for innovation. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015 Carissa Romero is a partner at the consulting firm Paradigm


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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