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What is a growth mindset? And what does that even mean for leadership, groups and organizations?
Another term for growth mindset is being deliberately developmental, meaning you have a deliberate set of practices that help you grow as a human being, which can be applied to whole groups.
And by growth, we mean growth in levels of maturity, growth in your ability to self-regulate and to overcome fear and blind habit, short-term urges and avoidances that derail you from your values.
In a nutshell, growth is your ability to understand yourself and master your own mind in real time. That's the self-regulating part.
It's not about adding more skills but improving your ability to apply those skills with more wisdom, insight, and balance, by knowing and aligning with your aspirations.
Harvard adult development experts, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey estimate that people waste a staggering 33% of their time and energy managing their image at work. Within this image management lies values breaches, where people don't speak up, admit their mistakes, blame others, or avoid addressing inefficiencies, all to ensure their image looks good.
This is a core reason why it's so normal in organizations to find the values on the floor are different from the values on the wall.
This gap between what we experience and what we aspire to can only be resolved through a developmental culture, when developmental leaders take on the self-awareness work needed to role model the aspirations of the organization more consistently.
The principle of a deliberately developmental organization is one where everyone sees and accepts themselves as a work in progress. People are more concerned with their development than their image and make a genuine daily effort to live and lead from a deeper sense of purpose and set of values.
This unleashes enormous amounts of energy, growth and trust in teams and organizations. At the end of the day, it's not about who looks the best, it's about learning and growth.
As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, "We need to move from a know-it-all attitude to a learn it all attitude."
The good news is, that the more we grow and mature, the happier we become. Internal conflict and stress in the mind settles, and we become more congruent, connected, and feel more alive.
Unfortunately, we often unconsciously hijack our own and others' growth through mental habits and avoidances that provide comfort and settle us in the short term but stop us living up to our long-term aspirations.
We need to become more aware of these anti-growth habits while understanding how to navigate the unavoidable discomfort that accompanies real growth.
Growth mindset, or growth-oriented people see themselves as a continual work in progress. They are more interested in learning than protecting their image. More interested in saying, "I made a mistake. What can I learn from this?" than denying their mistakes. They want to understand where, how and why they are falling short on their values, instead of justifying, ignoring, and denying actions that are not aligned with their values.
This can have a profound impact on whole organizations.
For a brief animation on being development click here.
We know from extensive research, that self-awareness is the most important of all leadership skills. It's the skill that can help you to interrupt fast brain energy efficient automatic habits that often take you away from your core values.
To manage the short-term emotional and physical discomfort associated with interrupting those habits, you need to cultivate your slow brain response (prefrontal cortex). That way you can access your best self in times of pressure and stress.
But to unhook from destructive and limiting assumptions, thoughts, and beliefs requires deep self-awareness. Self-awareness is a fundamental skill for mastering advanced levels of adult growth.
Surprisingly, very few people know how to practically cultivate self-awareness. This is illustrated when we ask people a rather simple question. If you were to practice self-awareness right now, what exactly would you do?
We get all kinds of responses to this question ranging from being aware of your impact on others, to thinking about your habits, asking for feedback, to even following your breathing, but these answers miss the mark.
So, what is self-awareness and how do we develop it? Self-awareness is two words, ‘self’ and ‘awareness’.
Being able to manage, train and increase your attention span (even in discomfort) is the most important part of developing and strengthening awareness itself.
Attention is awareness. If you're not paying attention to something, you lose awareness of it. So, training your attention is essential for the development of self-awareness.
This is exactly what mindfulness is, training in becoming more continuously attentive and aware of what is happening now.
To be self-aware is to bring that trained attention that is mindfulness and direct it inwards to what is going on inside us.
The first and most obvious and easy thing to notice is our body. Secondly, we can notice our mental and emotional reactivity to our experience (which is a bit more difficult). Thirdly, we can notice how our thoughts and emotions feed the story our mind is telling us at the time. And lastly, if our awareness is particularly advanced, we can notice our patterns – our assumptions, intentions, fixed views, and prejudices.
Collectively, these are the four foundations of mindfulness. They are the four areas we can direct our mindfulness to, and they are also the four foundations of self-awareness.
This is what we call real time self-awareness or self-mindfulness. This kind of self-awareness is available to you in any given moment.
Once you are more aware of what is going on inside you, you can begin to self-regulate and act more wisely, deliberately, and clearly.
Self-awareness enables you to manage yourself with choice, wisdom, and clarity in real time, not after the fact.
The basic mindfulness training or self-awareness training includes mindfulness of the body. These practices develop a mind that is not lost in the fantasy world of the mind and constant reactivity but is more interested in what's going on here and now.
Mindfulness cultivates that slow brain response we need for making wiser decisions. This turbo-boosts the growth process because it allows you see what what’s really going on. It also develops the inner strength to feel and embrace uncomfortable feelings instead of resisting and numbing.
People often say, "but I'm no good at meditating. Meditation is terrible for me." What they're usually reporting is that their meditation practice is full of discomfort, so they’d prefer to go back to numbing or other activities that feel more comfortable.
While meditation isn’t for everyone, we need to find a way to face our difficult feelings. To feel and relax into them and allow them to be there. That is the real path towards growth, more happiness, and a much less reactive mind.
Meditation happens to be a profoundly useful container for that practice. If you can remain sitting still during all that discomfort and just keep trying to come back to your breath while noticing the tension, that's real progress.
You're teaching yourself to be less reactive around difficult and uncomfortable feelings.
The next day, when you need to have a tough conversation and difficult feelings come up, you remember you've got this! “Oh, you know what? I've practiced handling this. I can have this honest conversation, even though I’m experiencing difficult feelings. They're not going to overwhelm me. I don't have to run away from them. I can be with them and still follow my values.”
This ability to face uncomfortable feelings is extremely important and an essential part of developmental mindfulness.
Mindfulness can take you all the way to the highest level of adult growth by seeing right through your false assumptions and judgements. Without mindfulness, the adult development process is extremely and unnecessarily slow.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about mindfulness is that it's just this Zen calming activity and has nothing to do with adult development and a growth mindset. That misunderstanding has come from people being mostly presented with only a calming mindfulness practice.
Technically there are two kinds of mindfulness practices, calming practices and those aimed at cultivating insight, also called developmental practices. The goal of a calming practice is to stabilize the mind, which is great for relaxation, recovery, and mental wellbeing.
Make no mistake, a calming practice is extremely important for development because personal growth is quite demanding.
The meditation technique for a calming concentration style uses a simple object of attention or singular concentration point. For example, following the breath and concentrating the mind in the present moment. As you concentrate the mind, the mind settles and stabilizes.
While extremely important, it's not developmental mindfulness. Calming techniques can even be used to repress difficult emotions like being sad or anxious and inadvertently slow developmental growth!
You can have a very calm stable mind, but still be quite a mess emotionally without learning to deal with what's going on underneath and to integrate that.
While calming meditation practices are the easy ones to do (and provide nice health and wellbeing benefits) developmental mindfulness is far more relevant for growth.
While mindfulness can exponentially speed up your growth, like all things that help you grow, it will introduce you to your underlying dissatisfaction, fears, anxiety, and more.
If we’re interested in learning and growing, we need to let go of categorizing, judging, and being annoyed with themselves when we don’t live up to our expectations.
We do that through cultivating self-kindness, self-compassion, and curiosity.
Invariably we’ll discover things about ourselves that scare or sadden us. It can be confronting to see what's really going on inside. But once we see it, if we add a bunch of harsh judgment to it, our mindfulness dies right there.
Cultivating kindness and friendliness toward ourselves allows us to see those parts of us that may have been hidden. Being judgmental arrests our progression. If there's not kindness, and friendliness in the quality of your attention, that's not mindfulness. That's something else.
For example, if a team of people in a business context want to be innovative, but every time someone ventures a new idea or makes a mistake they are mocked, shut down, criticized, judged, or punished, innovation is killed. We need emotional safety for learning and growth, it's a prerequisite. While we know we need that in a team, we also need to provide that for ourselves.
Harsh judgment shuts down curiosity and investigation. When I discover difficult parts of myself - which I will if I pay attention - a healthy response is, "Oh that's interesting." That enquiry is vital in a mindfulness practice.
The term beginners mind, or lifelong learner, is particularly relevant here.
Let’s share a client story to integrate this for you.
Kala received a 360-performance assessment by her team, and she scored exceptionally low on ‘follows through on promises and commitments’. This is a big deal in leadership because continuing with this behaviour destroys trust. She was shocked!
It’s easy to misdiagnose the problem as poor time management; to see a complex problem and throw a shallow technique-based solution at it. Just give her a time management program, more information will fix it!
But very rarely is it purely a time management problem, it's more a priority-avoidance problem. We need to investigate the deeper ‘why’ behind the mismanagement of time. The question is, why is she mismanaging her time?
On some level Kala knew was acting out of integrity by constantly over-committing and saying yes when she knew she could not meet the commitment. This insight was important, but insight alone changes nothing. She was addicted to other people’s approval and being liked. She felt good about herself when people smiled or said “thanks, you’re wonderful.”
Her need for approval was trumping her integrity and disconnecting her from her deepest values.
When she began saying “no” to people, they responded negatively. People would say, "What happened to you? You used to be nice. Suddenly, you are saying ‘no’. What's going on? Are you in a bad mood or something? Have I done something wrong?"
Unwittingly, people were jabbing at her need for approval. On getting their disapproval, she described the level of emotional pain in her system as overwhelming. If she couldn’t learn to handle that emotional pain, if she didn’t have the self-regulating self-awareness that's developed from a mindfulness practice, she’d revert (to a fast brain response) to get her short-term reward, her drug of approval, and phew, immediately she would feel better.
Unfortunately, that set her up for long-term pain. She had to learn to become more aware of her difficult feelings and integrate them, so she did not blindly react. She would also need support and accountability mechanisms.
This is what self-regulated growth is all about, and why it is far more important for long-term leadership success than leadership theory and learning new tools and techniques.
When you're trying to change a behaviour, mindfulness is your best friend for developing the ability to overcome your ‘quick-fix’ fast brain response.
Interestingly, the moment Kala started putting boundaries in place, her own sense of self-respect and self-worth grew. A beautiful cycle of growth was initiated where she was not constantly undermining her self by begging for people's approval, and her life became less chaotic and stressful.
A recovery process began just from this one simple practice. Don't underestimate the power of working on one single commitment, one big thing, and the amazing growth that can come from it. It was life-changing for this person.
With the ability to self-regulate, and mindfully check-in, when a person asks her something, she was able to slow the brain down, withstand the emotional discomfort and check in with herself, "Can I actually commit to this or not?"
That is a mindfulness practice. Without it her fast brain would hijack her into seeking other people’s approval, and she’d find herself back in the same patterns.
This is why developmental mindfulness is such big a deal for knowing how to navigate the inevitable discomfort and emotional pain that arises when we try to change our behaviour. Think of meditation as practicing and developing a muscle for doing that.
Without mindfulness and the trained ability to slow down the fast brain response the process either fails, is extremely slow, or hit and miss.
If we cannot check in with our body for what integrity feels like our actions cannot be informed by that integrity in real time. And, if we cannot withstand the intensity of the physical and emotional pain of disapproval, we’re unlikely to stick to our values and commitments.
Over time we learn that inner wellbeing can be self-resourced, and this beautiful message starts clicking in our minds. "All right, I've got this tool called mindfulness. I can develop my inner wellbeing. I've got these values that are independent of anyone else. I can develop those."
And slowly but surely, that results in a huge level of resilience, wellbeing, and growth as you become progressively more well and happier inside yourself.