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ATD Blog

Why Growth Mindset Is the Key to Building Back Better

Thursday, April 1, 2021
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Whatever you believe about the role of government, we can all agree that the public sector needs to adapt faster to changes like shifting demographics, advancing technology, or a sudden pandemic.

There’s an important body of research that can help. It’s based on the concept of growth mindset, which has to do with a subtle shift in how we approach tasks and has a large impact on our ability to do just about everything. Growth mindset is the belief that your skills and abilities can be improved. People who exhibit a growth mindset regard ongoing learning as one of the goals of any activity. They focus on improving rather than proving themselves, and they see mistakes as opportunities to get better rather than as signs of incompetence. In institutions with a growth mindset culture, leaders and employees alike uplift one another, welcome new ideas, and strive to get better.

This emerges from a foundational belief that it’s possible to improve at any task. It’s the difference between saying, “I can learn to cook if I try hard enough,” and saying, “Innately, I am not a good cook, so there’s no point in trying.”

Adopting a growth mindset is not a panacea, but it can help us face challenges with more agility, creativity, and resilience. Here are some of the ways this idea is relevant to government today.

Digital Transformation

The most common reason leaders want to adopt a growth mindset, according to an NLI survey, is digital transformation. Digital transformation requires a different way of thinking, a level of flexibility that is unique compared to other kinds of organizational changes.

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With digital transformation, paradigm-shifting changes happen overnight. Think of how Uber didn’t just make it easier to find a taxi; the company reinvented the process. In much the same way, many governments are under pressure to reinvent how the public interacts with their services. This kind of change requires everyone in an organization to let go of the past, look fresh at their ecosystem, experiment, learn, and iterate. These skills are at the heart of a growth mindset.

Employee Value Proposition

Organizations that deliver on their employee value proposition can decrease annual turnover by just under 70 percent and increase new hire commitment by nearly 30 percent.

The federal government employs 2.1 million people. For decades, turnover has been low given the relative stability, robust benefits, and motivating purpose of a career in the public sector. But research has shown that turnover among government employees is steadily ticking upward. Cultivating a growth mindset culture can improve commitment and stem staff churn because feeling you’re learning is one of the highest drivers of employee engagement.

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While the public sector may not always be able to compete on salaries or bonuses, it has the opportunity to out-culture the private sector by creating workplaces where people learn faster, have more opportunities to grow, and are provided with more helpful and regular feedback.

Building a Better Normal

The pandemic has demonstrated that the work the government does for the public is critical. Research suggests that when a lot of change occurs, people are most open to big changes.

When it’s all put together, it can be seen that this is a crisis not to be wasted. It’s an opportunity to build a better normal and make big changes in a year or two. Adopting a growth mindset can help with this urgent mission. Everyone needs a mindset in which they dwell less on shortcomings and instead imagine new possibilities, a mindset that is more inclusive of people from different backgrounds and experiences.

For governments to speed up, it’s time to care about growth—not growth in the size of government but in the mindset with which we approach our tasks. Now is the time to build back better, and a growth mindset can help.

About the Author

Dr. David Rock coined the term ‘Neuroleadership’ and is the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development. With operations in 24 countries, the Institute also helps large organizations operationalize brain research in order to develop better leaders and managers.

David co-edits the NeuroLeadership Journal and heads up an annual global summit. He has written many of the central academic and discussion papers that have defined the Neuroleadership field. He is the author of the business best-seller Your Brain at Work (Harper Business, 2009), as well as Quiet Leadership (Harper Collins, 2006) and the textbook Coaching with the Brain in Mind (Wiley & Sons, 2009). He blogs for the Harvard Business Review, Fortune Magazine, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post, and is quoted widely in the media about leadership, organizational effectiveness, and the brain.

Academically, David is on the faculty and advisory board of CIMBA, an international business school based in Europe. He has been a guest lecturer at many universities including Oxford University’s Said Business School. He is on the board of the BlueSchool, an initiative in New York City building a new approach to education. He received his professional doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership from Middlesex University in 2010.

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