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Growth Mindset: the Key to a Learn-it-all Culture

Expertism rules. Perfection is appreciated. First time right. Mistakes must be hidden, we fail secretly. Sascha Lobo once called this a typical German fixation for gap dimensions. This was the reason for the success of Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder. And in this success of yesterday lies our current problem. That’s why legions of German managers travel to Silicon Valley and admire the courage and speed there. The call for a new culture of failure follows. It is often forgotten that the point is not about failure itself, but about learning. What we need more than ever is a learning culture in our companies.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki

Carol Dweck, an American professor of psychology, has been researching for many years what makes the difference between children with strong learning ability and children with poor learning ability. She addresses the question of why some children have fun working on solving challenges and why others don’t dare to try them, rather choose simpler ones or give up quickly. In this context, she describes an amazing experiment. A child of primary school age sits in a room with an assistant. The child finds it easy to solve different puzzles and the assistant praises her talent: “You have done it well. You must be very smart!”. Now one might suspect that this success and praise encourages the child to attempt more difficult tasks. In fact, however, the opposite is true: children whose talent has been praised avoid the challenge of solving a more difficult puzzle and choose a much simpler one. However, if the effort and learning are praised (“You did well! You have worked hard and learned to make the puzzles faster and faster “), most of the children are curious and open to more difficult challenges. The eagerness to experiment and the willingness to learn are not a question of disposition or talent, but rather a question of attitude. Growth Mindset is what Carol Dweck calls this.

It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization, a Ford or a Sloan or a Watson or a Gates. […] The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s […] capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Transferred to the organizational level, this means that it is simply not enough to ask the employees to undertake courageous experiments like in Silicon Valley. The path to a learning culture begins with leadership because leadership shapes what is appreciated, recognized, praised and promoted in the organization. Those who solely promote talent, expertise, adherence to processes, avoid mistakes and hide failure need not complain about a lack of courage. The change of culture begins with the emphasis on learning – in both success and failure. It is precisely this cultural change, however, that will make a significant difference in the transformation of organizations towards greater agility and adaptability. Satya Nadella, who started an impressive change at Microsoft, wonderfully recognized and summarized this.

Culture is something that needs to adapt and change, and you’ve got to be able to have a learning culture. The intuition I got was from observing what happens in schools. I read a book called Mindset. In there’s this very simple concept that Carol Dweck talks about, which is if you take two people, one of them is a learn-it-all and the other one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run, even if they start with less innate capability.

That is true for boys and girls in schools. It’s true for CEOs in their jobs. It’s true for every employee at Microsoft. I need to be able to walk out of here this evening and say, “Where was I too closed-minded, or where did I not show the right kind of attitude of growth in my own mind?” If I can get it right, then we’re well on our way to having the culture we aspire to.
Satya Nadella

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On the occasion of the first anniversary I published a detailed version of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership on Leanpub. I am looking forward to feedback and impulses on the one hand and, of course, to broad dissemination on the other. Please spread the word!

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Filed under: Leadership


Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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