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Hope for Fixed Mindset Management After All?

Posted by Mark Bennett on August 29, 2008

“Learn anything?”

– Tony Soprano

After just recently seeing how a fixed mindset can cause a company to stop learning and ultimately lead to its decline, we have to ask if there is any way to get management out of that mindset. After all, it’s management’s leadership, or lack thereof, that most influences the company culture. Since the fixed mindset itself often sees no possibility of, nor reason to change, how do we get out of that trap?


Stanford professor Bob Sutton who, along with Jeffrey Pfeffer, is also coauthor of two excellent books – “The Knowing-Doing Gap” and “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense” just posted some potential good news on that very topic. He talks about a paper by Professors Peter Heslin and Don Vandewalle recently published* that provides evidence from experiments they ran that show a couple of interesting things:


  1. Managers with a fixed mindset were significantly less likely than managers with a growth mindset to notice both improvements in an employee as well as drop-offs in performance.
  2. When various interventions were applied to managers with a fixed mindset, they began to notice changes in employee performance at roughly the same rates as the growth mindset managers.

As Bob puts it,


“The upshot of this research is that managers who believe that employee ability is fixed are less likely to notice when an employee that they believe to be “poor” does good work, or when an employee that they believe to be “good” does poor work. But the silver lining is that the fixed mindset isn’t fixed!  You can teach an experienced manager a new mindset!


More research will be done, but these results give hope and make intuitive sense, at least if you have a growth mindset. Someone with a growth mindset would expect that a fixed mindset would be less likely to see performance changes in either direction, since the potential for change is more strictly limited in the fixed mindset. And if you hold to the growth mindset, it should come as no surprise that the fixed mindset managers could themselves change.


What were the interventions? They included:


  • Showing videos to the managers with research indicating that the brain is capable of “growing like a muscle.” 
  • Encouraging the managers to generate reasons to believe that people are capable of developing their abilities.
  • Having the managers write an email to a hypothetical protégée outlining arguments that abilities can be developed and talking about times when they had “personally overcome professional development challenges.”


*Heslin, Peter A. & Don Vandewalle (2008) Managers’s Implicit Assumptions About Personnel.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. 17: 219-223.


2 Responses to “Hope for Fixed Mindset Management After All?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    Mark I was thinking about this post from Bob as well a bit from the other direction. I agree with the content but I was thinking of the other side. What if the person you are trying to see improvement in, is themselves a fixed mindset person. I tend to believe that an individual who is a fixed mindset will have a hard time growing. Does that make me, as a manager, a fixed mindset person? Or a realist? Or just a pessamist?

  2. Dear Meg Bear—- Your line of thinking is on target in that a fixed mindset can be problematic for managing others and also for managing the self.

    Per your question about managing an employee with a fixed mindset, it can indeed be challenge, as those with a fixed mindset are less likely to be receptive to feedback, coaching, etc., from their manager.

    Recognizing that an employee has a fixed mindset, and realizing that this mindset could hinder his or her growth, does NOT mean that you now have a fixed mindset. Rather, such recognition provides insight about a belief that needs attention to more effective help an employee to grow.

    Don Vandewalle
    Cox School of Business
    Southern Methodist University

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