“What mindset do you have and what mindset does your company have?” asks Sue France. Do you struggle because of a fixed mindset? Or do you feel more empowered by a growth mindset?

Professor Carol Dweck was inspired to do her research on mindsets when she became curious that some people wilt in the face of failure or shy away from challenges and other people, who are no more talented or able, actually embrace challenges and thrive in the face of failure. Ultimately her research led to the discovery of the fixed and growth mindsets.

A fixed mindset is when you believe you are born with a certain amount of fixed traits and talent and that is it. In a fixed mindset people feel embarrassed if they fail or are excluded or rejected and feel they are not the person they want to be. They may also feel ashamed. Shame is not a productive emotion – it makes you want to hide or lash out at someone.

Other people believe talent and abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, good mentoring/coaching from others etc, and this is known as the growth mindset. With a growth mindset, at times you can feel disappointed and hurt and even guilty - but these are emotions that allow you to move forward, be constructive and grow.

After years of research with thousands of people, Carol Dweck and her team discovered that having a fixed mindset leads you to being afraid of challenges that might unmask your deficiencies, it makes you withdraw in the face of difficulties because if you don’t want to be wrong, and you don’t want to look stupid in front of other people. When I’m presenting to an audience at a conference or in a workshop, people don’t want to ask questions in case they look stupid. I tell them it’s okay to ask questions, no matter what, as the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask! In fact the one who asks the question (that most people are probably thinking of anyway) does a good service for those around them who are ‘afraid’ of putting their hand up.

Having a growth mindset – the belief that your abilities can be developed, makes you think “why waste my time looking smart when I can get even smarter by taking on challenges and powering through any obstacles that come my way”. A growth mindset is continual lifelong learning. It does not mean that everyone has the same abilities; it just means believing that everyone can grow. You can be born with passions and talents and you can also build on these. Unfortunately many people with the fixed mindset are born with talents and passions but they don’t develop them and they lose them.

In the 1990s we were told to tell people how smart and special and talented they were – this strategy had good intentions, as we wanted to motivate people, boost their self-esteem and boost their efforts in making more achievements. However, Professor Carol Dweck has studied thousands of people and has found that instead this has instead led to people accepting mediocrity, becoming less resilient, not take on challenges and not having the mindset to fulfill their potential. Carol Dweck has proven that telling people they are smart actually backfires and it isn’t a ‘smart’ thing to do!

The primary school I went to concentrated on italic handwriting skills more than any other subject such as history or geography and usually every year only a handful of this school’s pupils went to grammar school and the rest went to a secondary school. If you went to grammar school it meant you would do well in life and if you went to secondary school it meant you could only take CSEs which did not count for a lot when you went to work – pupils with CSEs were not allowed to take the higher exams of ‘O’ levels, then ‘A’ levels and then go on to University. You were more likely to leave school at 16 and take on manual work, factory work, hairdressing or shop work. These were the general beliefs but many people who did go to secondary school have done extremely well – Lord Alan Sugar is an example of this.

When I took my eleven plus (which you are supposed to take when you were 11 years old to see whether you would go on to secondary or high school), I was the youngest in the class and was only 10 years old when I took my test. I knew that my parents didn’t mind if I passed or failed and that they would still love me, but I decided to give myself the best possible chance and read everything I could get my hands on and practiced maths and English in my own time - and I passed. Along with only 5 other pupils who passed in my year, I proudly went to Pendleton High School for Girls (PHS for short). The rest of my year went to Hope secondary school – the names are quite telling in themselves! I lost a lot of the friends I had through the segregation and differentiation but I went on to make new and lifelong friends. I believe the system is much better now with most areas having comprehensive secondary schools with set curriculums, where everyone has an equal chance in life (with only a few areas in the UK continuing the old system).

I am glad that my mindset was that if I worked hard I could achieve what I wanted. Unbeknown to me, at that time I had a growth mindset whereas my parents had a fixed mindset - believing that I probably wouldn’t pass, but it didn’t matter.

It’s important to realise we can be a mixture of a fixed and growth mindsets and that we can have a fixed mindset in one area and a growth mindset in another area; it is a spectrum.

People with a fixed mindset may think, “Everyone thinks I’m smart so I can’t show them that I am working hard on this as I’m supposed to be smart enough to be able to do it” – can you see how damaging this can be for you? Whereas the same person in other times could be in a growth mindset and face challenges head on and work through them and succeed further than they thought they could.

We need to look for our triggers because a fixed mindset can hold you back. Realize when you are facing a big challenge – are you thinking you are going to expose yourself to others, showing them that you are not as clever as they think you are? What happens when you meet an obstacle or have a setback – do you think, “I’m not good at this”? What happens when someone is giving you feedback or criticizing your work – do you feel angry and get defensive? How do you feel when you see someone who is better than you in what you are good at? Do you feel jealous and resentful, or do you feel inspired and motivated to do better and may be that you could even learn from that person and even ask them to mentor you?

Watch out for those trigger moments of thought – think to yourself is this a fixed or growth mindset? Endeavour to always have a growth mindset, a much healthier way of thinking and living. It also helps you be a better person in more ways than one.

Words are very important to how you can change your beliefs; a person with a fixed mindset might say “I can’t do that” or “I’m not good at maths” etc. but a person with a growth mindset would add a very important word to the end of those sentences and that is – yet! 

When you use the word ‘yet’ it is motivating, and encouraging you to be tenacious and carry on learning. I learned Spanish when my daughter was at primary school as the school’s Spanish teacher was gracious enough to offer his talent to the parents of the school children in evening class. However, having not used my Spanish much since then, I feel I am not good at Spanish – yet! I have, however, starting using a wonderful free app called Duolingo. I am now practicing Spanish every day through this app and I am improving day by day.

Words are really powerful and can work against your best intentions - for example, using the word “smart”. We convey to others that smart people don’t make mistakes, they don’t have to work hard and the most important thing in the world is to be smart and look smart at all times. People then start narrowing their world so they can succeed within that fixed mindset – and that’s dangerous!

Carol Dweck states that when you call someone smart you are putting them on a pedestal and their life becomes organized around deserving the pedestal, and staying on top of the pedestal. You do that by only doing things you are sure you are good at and that you know you will succeed at. When someone is told “you did that really quickly – I’m so impressed” – the person hears “if you didn’t do it quickly, I wouldn’t be impressed.”

In the work that Assistants do, many things take a long time to do and probably more time than people would think they should take! For example, we know how time-consuming diary management can be: you have many people to coordinate for just one meeting and you have many meetings to organize in one day and over the week/month/year. It’s not only the diary set up but also the booking and organising of the room, informing reception, booking catering, audio visual equipment, collating data, preparation of documents, booking conference calls, sending out the agenda and updating it, meeting the Chairman of the meeting, minutes from the last meeting, collating replies, passing on apologies and often working in different time zones, not to mention when one of the important attendees wants to change the meeting date and you have to start all over again.

If you are the person who wishes to empower someone else, instead of saying “you are smart” when they’ve done something well, having a growth mindset means showing interest in the process, asking questions, giving encouragement, appreciating what has been achieved and then tying it into something they are engaged in, for example “You couldn’t do that yesterday and you have tried different things and now you can and that’s exciting – well done!”

A growth mindset does not require you to improve on everything around you - having a growth mindset means that you love learning, taking on challenges, sticking to them and feeling the satisfaction and thrill of improving. You can choose and focus on what you want to work on.  Success is a by-product of the growth mindset. Realize that every time you do hard and difficult tasks and power your way through them, neurons in your brain form new connections and you become smarter. If you realize this, then you will do better when meeting obstacles, challenges and accepting and working with change and transitioning to different jobs.

Specific behaviors for you to get yourself on a growth mindset are:

  • Monitor your fixed mindset triggers – listen to your inner talk. If you don’t listen to your inner talk it will rule your behavior in a habitual and non-emotionally intelligent way.
  • If you see someone who is better than you – learn from them
  • If you have a choice between something safe and a challenge – take the challenge
  • If, and when, you hit obstacles, interpret them in a growth mindset way: say to yourself “what can I learn from this and what can I do next?”
  • Realise that a growth mindset is a continual way of lifelong learning – it’s not something you arrive at
  • If someone makes a mistake and you act like it is important or you excuse it and gloss over it in a way that the person takes it as a negative, that person will develop a more fixed mindset. Help them develop more of a growth mindset and say, “let’s move on from this mistake and learn from it – what can you do to make the situation better?”

Does your company value raw talent and abilities above all else and worship them (a fixed mindset organization)? Or do they value and believe in everyone’s ability to grow? 

The ideal companies to work for are those that believe in everyone’s ability to improve, develop and that value lifelong learning, creativity, innovation. A company that provides opportunities for you to reach your potential, that empowers you and supports you both mentally and fiscally in your learning and development. 

Remember: developing a growth mindset is a lifelong learning journey of monitoring your trigger points, being self-aware, taking on new challenges and never giving up.


About The Author: Sue France, FCIPD FInstAM INLPTA, is a trainer, coach and conference chairperson, creator of the new ‘Workation’ training, co-owner of S&S in2training for 2-day public workshops in the UK. Sue is the author of the award-winning “The Definitive Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook” and “The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook 3rd edition.A qualified FCIPD Learning & Development Practitioner and coach, Certified Neuro-Linguistic Programming Practitioner, The UK Times Crème/DHL PA of the Year 2006, Certified TetraMap® Facilitator, and editorial board member of ‘Executive Secretary’ magazine.

This article first appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine, a global training publication and must read for any administrative professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website at www.executivesecretary.com to find out more or to get your 30% discount email lbrazier@executivesecretary.com and tell them we sent you.