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Moving Forward With Grit and Growth Mindset

October 22, 2020 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

When talking with friends and colleagues, it's clear that feeling stuck, frustrated or, frankly, just weary of the pandemic is quite common. The realization has sunk in that recovery is going to be a longer and slower uphill climb than we had hoped. In response, our coping strategies seem to ebb and flow as does our motivation to tackle repetitive tasks and routine schedules. The intensity of the sameness and isolation is surreal, leaving many with the sensation of feeling stalled.

For me, “good” days seem to be the ones where I make meaningful, incremental progress even though the final outcome may not be clear. When I reflect on my own satisfaction, my motivation is at its highest when I end my day with a sense of forward motion, feeling like I’m “directionally correct.” From my perspective, I have accomplished enough to motivate me to do more, and hopefully better, the next day.

I did some research to figure out what can be done to optimize the chance of feeling genuinely motivated to make forward progress whenever possible. Here are snapshots from three research areas that felt salient to me. I hope they will to you, too.

Sir Isaac Newton and the Law of Inertia

The sense of being stalled is clearly exacerbated by the tangible, daily constraints of coping with a pandemic. At the risk of sounding like Sheldon Cooper from the hit TV show "The Big Bang Theory," here’s the essence of Newton’s first law of motion:

Unless otherwise acted upon, objects at rest tend to stay at rest,
and objects in motion tend to stay in motion, in the same direction and at the same speed.

To translate physics into human behavior, unless we choose to think and act differently the probability that we’ll wake up each day and repeat the same patterns and feel “stuck” is pretty high. While we may not be able to completely change our physical circumstances, we absolutely can influence how we feel.

Thanks to the curiosity and research of two American psychologists, Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth, we have clues about how to cope with our current reality. They have found incremental progress, perseverance and even a willingness to fail along the way can create greater meaning in our lives, something we need more of in these times of isolation and societal unrest.

Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset

Growth mindset first gained prominence in educational institutions but now has found a strong foothold in corporate environments. If you’ve not encountered Dweck's growth mindset previously, it essentially says our brain’s ability to learn is not “fixed” at birth, and with the right mindset, our capacity and capability to learn can increase over our lifetime.

At its core, growth mindset focuses our energies on improving ourselves, not proving we are smarter than others. It’s a mental model for how we learn, adapt and change over time. With more than two decades of research, it’s clear that when we pursue results combined with a growth mindset, we perform better than when we focus on results alone.

The core tenets of growth mindset guide us to:

  • Value incremental progress over time
  • Engage in sustained effort
  • View difficulty and even failure as enabling learning

How does growth mindset relate to our current circumstances? Fortunately, it fosters a greater sense of belonging and uplifts how we think about future intentions. It also positively impacts teaming, as success is not about outperforming someone else but outperforming yourself. Competition with colleagues is not necessary as everyone can win by deeply processing hardships and failures, which helps us develop strategies to improve.

Growth mindset is about the daily, purposeful discipline of getting incrementally better.

Angela Duckworth and Grit

The Japanese term kaizen is the business philosophy of “continuous improvement.” At its core, kaizen sees productivity improvement as a gradual and methodical process. It's a journey, not an epiphany. Lasting improvement comes from excellence in routines, even in areas we might consider mundane.

Duckworth’s research has shown that there’s more to success than acquiring skills and knowledge. She highlights that consistent patterns of grit and perseverance, coupled with passion, are strong indicators of long-term success. Grit — the determination to not give up and to work through challenges in the face of adversity — is a better predictor of future happiness and success than traditional measures like IQ or personality assessments.

When we persevere in the face of hardship, we often develop deeper personal meaning as well as a greater sense of organizational belonging. Conversely, perseverance and grit without passion can feel like drudgery — completing tasks without any sense of future commitment. Regardless of your position, you can act as a role model by sharing your own imperfections, your failures and the grit you’ve needed to succeed. If you’re a leader, people notice how you react to other’s failures, looking for consistency between what you say and what you do.

People who succeed, fail all the time – probably more than the norm. They embrace the risk of trying something new.

Janet Ahn, professor of psychology at William Paterson University

Janet Ahn, professor of psychology and director of the motivation and innovation lab, William Paterson University:

"Reframing and sharing one’s narrative that normalizes adversities and struggles can benefit the collective or the larger group – when people share openly, others learn that struggles are not unique to them personally but are indeed experienced by all and even view them as short-lived (versus permanent states that are difficult to change).

Recent research has shown that one way of enhancing growth mindset is by revealing and exposing the struggles of role models (e.g., famous scientists like Albert Einstein). When role models are more transparent about how they navigated their journeys to their eventual accomplishments and success, other individuals are more motivated (as indicated by their heightened performance), they feel more psychologically connected to both the role models and the struggle stories, and they are more likely to endorse a growth mindset than those who were never exposed to struggle stories.

These are the benefits of being more honest and open about one’s struggles and failures."

How Can You Leverage Grit and Growth to Persevere and Thrive?

Here are some essential tips, all intended to activate the neurotransmitters in your brain that generate sensations of happiness, motivation and well-being:

1. Plan for specific, incremental gains.

We all have big goals but planning for smaller steps not only creates progress, it motivates you to do even more. Most business goals are statements of ultimate outcomes but the underlying success comes from steady, incremental, purposeful progress. Plan for incremental rewards to celebrate your progress, be that a long-overdue conversation with a friend or a treat in the pantry that’s calling your name.

2. Share your hardships.

If you think you’re alone in your sense of isolation and feeling stalled, you’re not. Transparency about vulnerabilities may be the most underutilized coping strategy in the workplace. It not only helps you cope but it also helps others. As you model transparency, you create the needed psychological safety for others to do the same in return. It’s a virtuous circle: They care for you because you trust them enough to share.

3. Strive to excel at the things you really love.

Rarely do we persist at things we don’t like. Each day, make the space to get better at something you enjoy about your career and your life. Not only will it uplift you during challenging times, it will accelerate you during good times.

4. Frame failure as learning.

If you don’t have the freedom to fail, you don’t have the freedom to learn. While this is true for self-reflection, it’s even more important when interacting with others. Pay close attention to how you react to others when they don’t succeed, be that your colleagues or your kids. If your first instinct is to focus on the failed task and not the person who took a chance to grow, it’s time to check your thinking and reframe your thoughts, words and actions around failure.

5. Pause when you’re in overload.

Persistence doesn’t entail a lack of balance. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes the best move to enable persistence is to pause so your mind can refresh. Particularly when facing a complex problem that has no single right answer, it’s useful to stop actively thinking about the issue and allow the non-conscious part of your brain to generate new ideas.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.


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