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Fear is the Growth Mindset Killer

Posted by Mark Bennett on August 20, 2008

Paul Atriedes: What’s in the box?

Reverend Mother: Pain.

Paul Atriedes: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear’s path, and only I will remain.

This is about learning and growth, how they are needed for continued success, and how a culture of fear destroys learning and growth within an organization and consequently (and ironically), its continued success. We’ll weave together Dune, “The Competitive Imperative of Learning”, and the Growth Mindset.


In a crucial scene from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, the main character Paul Atriedes is tested by putting his hand in a mysterious box. The key features of the test are:


  1. Uncertainty – Paul does not know exactly what is in the box. Nor can he see his hand once it is inside the box. Nor can he trust that the person giving the test will not cause him harm.
  2. Risk – By placing his hand in the box, he risks losing it, and in the violent universe of Dune, that means defenselessness and likely death.
  3. Discomfort – As his hand remains in the box, the level of pain Paul feels is not only becoming unbearable, but also utterly convincing in conveying the destruction of his hand; the thing he most fears.

However, Paul cannot move to the next stage of growth in his life without taking this test. He knows what’s at stake and puts his hand in the box. Pain gradually builds to a higher and higher level. Now, he can leave his hand in the box while the Reverend Mother paints an ever more vivid picture of how it is being burnt to a crisp, or he can pull it out and shut off forever a critical path towards his individual growth. He cannot eliminate the uncertainty, risk, or pain – they are the given conditions. Those conditions generate the growing fear he feels. The question is: does fear rule? How does he deal with the fear?


“Fixed” and “Growth” Mindset Responses to Uncertainty, Risk, and Discomfort


In the July-August 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Amy C. Edmondson writes in “The Competitive Imperative of Learning” about how companies that solely emphasize efficiency in execution may do well in the short term, but not over the long haul. In order to maintain long term competitive survival, companies need to enable employees to solve unanticipated problems and to evolve processes.


She describes how while everyone agrees on the necessity of execution, there are two different approaches to execution. The first is “execution-as-efficiency” where the objective is simply to continue to execute the way things have always been done since the optimal solution has already been discovered and communicated. Any other approach or experiment to find something better is deemed suboptimal and a waste of resources. This mindset is self-reinforcing and is usually validated by initially positive results, followed in turn by fallacies such as attribution error (“Our success demonstrates the correctness of our world view.”) The problem is that conditions are always changing at an ever-increasing rate and what worked in the past may not work today and sooner than you think. General Motors is provided as an example of what can happen to a company wedded to execution-as-efficiency.


In contrast, the approach promoted in the article is “execution-as-learning” where the objective is to not simply make sure a process is carried out well, but to find out if there are ways to improve the process or to solve a problem in a more effective way. Here, experimentation is encouraged and while the importance of process, systems, discipline and detail is still held as high as it is in “execution-as-efficiency”, they are seen not as fixed elements and goals in and of themselves, but as flexible tools for the accomplishment of ever-improving results and adaptation to rapidly changing competitive conditions. The result is a company more capable of reacting to changing conditions. General Electric is provided as an example here.


Edmondson’s article refers to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on how having a “fixed” or “growth” mindset affects persistence and performance over time and how they are reflected in these two approaches to execution. Execution-as-learning exhibits a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset acknowledges that things aren’t as good as they might be; things could be better. A true growth mindset even questions what “better” really means and examines the assumptions about what measures are being used in defining “better”. The growth mindset demands reflection, questioning, and experimentation. These actions are all considered heresy in the “fixed mindset” exhibited in execution-as-efficiency, since by definition the best has been identified and all that remains is to correct behaviors until that definition of “best” is achieved. Those actions are by definition, inefficient and therefore forbidden. Conformity and lack of questioning are seen as virtues because they support efficiency. Mistakes and experimentation are viewed as nonconformance and result in penalties via lowered performance ratings.


Where Does Fear Come Into Play?


Uncertainty, risk and discomfort are part and parcel of business and therefore fear is present. Fear can serve a useful purpose to alert us to threats to business. However, when it is not dealt with and left to fester, fear becomes a “culture of fear”, and that kind of fear is a key destroyer of the growth mindset, and in turn destroys execution-as-learning, in both overt as well as subtle ways. Edmondson’s article has a chart that compares execution-as-efficiency vs. execution-as-learning across various factors. It demonstrates the insidious effect of fear (of boss or consequences) by showing how under execution-as-efficiency,


“[Fear] generally does not appreciably harm the quality of execution; it may even motivate effort and attentiveness in those facing an otherwise dull task.”


Talk about faint praise, but it explains how a fixed mindset would find this outcome attractive. In other words, the very premise of the fixed mindset finds value in fear as a way to maintain conformance, which is one of its key objectives (“this is the way we’ve always done it.”) Execution-as-learning, on the other hand, sees fear as destructive:


“[Fear] cripples the learning process: It inhibits experimentation, lowers awareness of options, and discourages people from sharing and analyzing insights, questions, and problems.”


These effects of fear are exactly what can cause companies to cease to grow and learn. As a result, they become vulnerable to changing market conditions, competition, disruptive innovators, etc. and have their long term prospects damaged. Unchecked, fear is the growth mindset killer and with it, the future prospects of the company.


But What About Accountability?


Is execution-as-learning a workable alternative to execution-as-efficiency? The common “fixed mindset” response to execution-as-learning is that it weakens accountability since it doesn’t demand top performance. Is that really the case? We’ll address that in the next post.


4 Responses to “Fear is the Growth Mindset Killer”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Mark – The book Mindset totally blew my mind. After having read it and thought about it, it seems really obvious. But, the truth is, it isn’t obvious to most people or organizations (including me before reading it). It should be required reading!

    It was awhile ago, but I also posted about this after reading the book – https://talentedapps.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/is-high-potential-a-label-or-a-mindset/

  2. […] through sophomoric behaviorMike Teer on What I am passionate about [today]Amy Wilson on Fear is the Growth Mindset KillerJayavel on 8 Things about Vivian « Well done […]

  3. […] leadership – one that makes each of us a potential leader if we are willing to stop avoiding it, overcome our fear, and just start. “Tribes” are groups of people with a shared interest and a way to communicate. […]

  4. […] consider what you might be short of in an organizational culture dominated by fear. That’s correct; there’s never enough time, don’t stop to think – act, and the energy […]

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