‘Growth mindset’ – Panacea or double-edge weapon?

The principles embedded in Carol Dweck’s Growth mindset theory have played a great role in my life, especially in recent years. They are inspiring, motivating and reassuringly universal. However, they are nothing new. Every single one of Tony Robbins or Eric Thomas’ motivational videos disseminate exactly the same ideas. In the realm of social learning theory, Bandura’s (1994) produced very similar findings and his self-efficacy theory overlaps with Dweck’s work in many ways. Another psychologist, Herman (1980), codified in his resultative hypothesis very similar principles, too. Finally, at the risk of trivializing the present discussion, Rocky Balboa’s famous ‘motivational’ speech to his son, in Sylvester Stallone’s movie, could be seen as a forerunner of many of Dweck’s principles…

So why all the fuss now? Why is ‘Growth mindset’ all the rage in the business and education world at this moment in our history? Why do, these days, so many diagrams displaying Carol Dweck’s commandments pop up in so many Tweets and Facebook posts day in day out? Why is it that nowadays every business and educational establishment prides themselves in adopting a growth mindset? Does it mean they did not before? Why is everyone jumping on the ‘Growth mindset’ bandwagon all of a sudden?

The answer to the question is manifold. The fact that Dweck is a Stanford professor obviously helps, to start with, rendering it more credible than the aphorisms of a motivational guru of the likes of Eric Thomas. Secondly, the label ‘Growth mindset’ is much more intelligible and appealing to the masses than the obscure jargon used by other psychologists (e.g. ‘Self.-efficacy theory”, ‘Resultative hypothesis’). Thirdly, Dweck’s theory is clearly packaged and presented; it is very inspirational and versatile in its application. But, most importantly, it comes at the ‘right time in our history – a time of deep global societal and financial crisis; a time in which every single one of us needs to believe that hard work, grit, positivity and the will to succeed can pull us through the frightening uncertainty and precariousness of today’s world. In this, lies the main reason for the success of Dweck’s theory and its resonance with so many of us.

Of course, there is another, more sinister interpretation of Dweck’s success, which verges on conspiracy theory, but cannot be totally discounted. This interpretation has less to do with the author’s theory than with its opportunistic use by businesses and educational establishments. Whereas Growth mindset has great potential for motivating and inspiring staff, it can also be used to support a more autocratic/ top-down leadership style. For instance, the notion that ‘if one cannot accept negative criticism’ exhibits a fixed mindset is one that I could not agree more; however, what if the criticism is ‘incorrect’, not constructive, biased, badly formulated, in other words, bad criticism. Does it mean that if one does not accept this kind of criticism one exhibits a ‘fixed mindset’? It is easy to see how this can be easily used by a manager to silence any ‘dissonant’ voices amongst their staff.

The same goes for not being open to new challenges – another marker of a fixed mindset. Excellent to ‘silence’ anyone who is against a given innovation in a business or educational establishment. What if there are valid reasons to speculate that a new initiative will not be more effective – despite major time and financial investment by all the stakeholders – than the to-be-replaced existing practice? Should one be silent for fear of being ‘dubbed’ a ‘fixed mindset employee’?

My argument here is basically that, at a crucial time in the lives of many businesses and educational establishments, when transformational change is rampant and cost-effectiveness is a must, Carol Dweck’s theories can be a powerful double-edge weapon by constituting a great source of inspiration, motivation and resilience which pushes people to work beyond their comfort zone whilst – when used unethically – being very effective in silencing criticism or any resistance to change, even when they are legitimized by common sense, objective evidence and/or ethical considerations. Is it why the Growth mindset principles have become so popular?

In conclusion, Dweck’s ‘Growth mindset’ theory provides an excellent reference framework for self-improvement which can have many productive and motivation-enhancing applications in business as well in the foreign language classroom and education at large. It sends a positive and inspirational message which has an intuitive cognitive and affective appeal for anyone. However, one should be concerned when the people who use a ‘minimalistic’ application of Dweck’s theory – like the ones crystallized in the fancy diagrams circulating on Twitter-  ‘learnt’ through two or three CPD sessions, rather than through extensive and ‘deep processing’ of Dweck’s publications, as a means to pre-empt healthy criticism and constructive debate.