In business, and especially in training and development (L&D), “growth spirits” have become a buzzword. Psychologist Carol Dweck introduced the concept in her book “Thinking: A New Psychology of Success”; it refers to the belief that our abilities and traits are not fixed and that we can cultivate them. People with a mindset for growth see challenges as opportunities and strive to learn, which prepares them for success in times of adversity. As a Learning and Development Specialist, I have noticed how important it is for students to develop growth thinking to recognize the learning process and learn from failures.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I learned about the importance of growth thinking when I entered boarding school at the age of 12. During the qualifying interview, when the principal and dean asked me what my favorite sport was, I hastened to state that I was not fond of sports and entered the school because of an interest in art. A few weeks later, when I moved to campus, I discovered (to my horror) that my daily schedule included hourly hockey and baseball lessons.
After months of missed passes, bad balls, bruised legs and struggling with my frustration over being selected last on the team, I began to accept my shortcomings and, slowly but steadily, learn from them. I began to view sport as something more than something I had failed at; I started enjoying those wet afternoons on acres of trimmed grass where I learned about athleticism, perseverance and teamwork.
Working virtually with students during the COVID-19 pandemic, everything I learned as a teenager on the playground came back to me. Working alone outside the home is rarely easy. The pandemic has posed new challenges to distance work and collaboration, as well as challenges related to distance and virtual learning. In a sense, each student works like an island and learns independently. Although nurturing a growth mood is beneficial to students at every stage of their lives, I have found that during a pandemic such thinking is critical to their professional and personal well-being.
To that end, here are five ways you can encourage your students to cultivate growth thinking at work:
1. Pay attention to their efforts and growth
The pandemic has created an increasingly dynamic workplace where students are often faced with new types of tasks and challenges. When we work on a new task, we easily feel threatened because of the mistakes we make when trying something new. In such situations, encourage students to pay close attention to their efforts and recognize that with each step they take, they can learn something new. As the author Andrian Theodore wrote in The Power of a Positive Life, “Everything that should be done should be done badly – until you learn to do it well.”
2. Encourage students to focus on the process, not the end goal
When we work on a task, it is easy to rush to the finish line, focusing primarily on completion to move on to the next task. When students take this approach, they are not allowed to immerse themselves in the task and develop a strong understanding of how to accomplish it. Instead, they can perform the task mechanically, which can interfere with effective learning, including their ability to identify effective processes and understand what works well and what doesn’t.
3. Inform students about how perfectionism can interfere with the learning process
When students are working on a new task or developing a new skill, they naturally strive for perfectionism. Perfectionism can cause fear to make mistakes and anxiety to do everything flawlessly. Such high expectations tend to create a sense of frustration when things go wrong as planned, which can hinder students ’motivation. Sometimes, when I see that students are overwhelmed with thoughts of failure, I tell them what the teacher told me in my first job: “If you don’t make mistakes, it only says one thing – you don’t work.”
4. Push them to put their egos aside
For many students, the pandemic has created ambiguity in their work. If they are used to being an expert, then finding themselves in new territory and forced to deal with the situation as a beginner may feel frustrated. Push them to drown out their inner voice of cynicism and defense. The better they put their egos aside, the sooner they can get a clear idea of the problem – and overcome it.
5. Support students in learning new types of work and reward their actions
In order for students to learn new ideas and types of work, give them ample opportunities to learn and reward their actions instead of praising their traits. For example, tell them what they are to do something innovative or smart instead of just saying they are innovative or smart.
As a coach and teacher, I honestly share my mistakes and learning experiences with my students. I tell them how failure as a 12-year-old on the sports field was a terrible experience – but I soon realized that failure does not define me. It was just something to work on; study in; and over the years reflect and share stories. As Carol Dweck said, “When people already know they’re lacking, they have nothing to lose by trying.”