Growth Mindset for Leaders


If interventions to shift students’ towards a growth mindset can work, can these types of interventions work for teachers and leaders in our schools?


The topic of mindsets in education has been explored by a number of professors in the Stanford University Psychology Department and the Graduate School of Education. One of the best summaries of this research is in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , which utilizes research findings to dissuade readers from focusing on developing a fixed mindset-- the view that people’s intelligence is not malleable (e.g. you are either smart or not smart)-- and encourages readers to focus on developing a growth mindset-- the view that people’s intelligence is malleable (e.g. you can learn and grow smarter). [1]


One of the San Francisco and Stanford joint projects has explored whether an intervention can improve teachers’ mindsets towards mistakes in mathematics, therefore helping students’ have more opportunities to persevere in the face of mistakes in mathematics and hopefully improve their performance. So far, the study suggests that teachers’ mindsets are malleable, and can actually be influenced to build a growth mindset, encourage mistakes, and reduce worry over mistakes with a set of online modules.

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This project left a group of SFUSD leaders wondering what affects, if any, principals’ mindsets have on the outcomes for the teachers they manage.


One of the administrators pointed out that Dweck discusses some research findings by Heslin and colleagues in her book Mindset . This team of researchers found that managers’ mindsets affected their ability to acknowledge improvements in their employees’ performance after they have formed an initial impression of an employee. Heslin and colleagues refer to these mindsets as “implicit person theory” or the beliefs about the malleability of personal attributes (like personality or ability). Heslin and colleagues found that employees with managers having a growth mindset thought their managers provided better coaching for employee development. [2]


In Mindset, Dweck goes onto describe how Heslin and colleagues conducted a workshop with some steps that helped a set of managers shift their mindsets. The exercises in this workshop included:


a)      They considered why it is important to understand that people can develop their abilities

b)      They think of areas in which they once had low ability but now perform well

c)      They write to a struggling protégé about how his or her abilities can be developed

d)      They recall times they have seen people learn to do things they never thought these people could do

After the workshop, there was a rapid change in how readily the participating managers detected improvements in employee performance, in how willing they were to coach a poor performer, and in the quantity and quality of their coaching suggestions. [3]


Dweck translated these findings into two implications: 1) it is not just about hiring the best managers, but looking for managers who embody a growth mindset, and 2) we need to train managers to believe in growth, in addition to effective communication and mentoring.


These findings are also supported by others in the private sector, as seen in Hagel and Brown’s post online in the Harvard Business Review describing how mindset profoundly shapes key business practices. They argue for three key principles in business that advocate for a growth mindset:

1)      A growth mindset sees the ecosystem of a business benefiting from the development of its employees and a broad range of networks, rather than just believing there are a finite set of smart people and valuable resources

2)      Businesses should focus on talent development rather than exclusively on attracting and retaining talent, and 3) by working together we can create more value than working individually. [4]


Dweck article in Principal Leadership titled, “Mindsets and Equitable Education,” also provides a strong rationale for why school teachers and administers should set a culture of growth mindset in schools. According to Dweck:


Teachers and administrators should send messages that intelligence is fluid, and they need to hear such messages too. They need to keep growing, especially in these challenging and changing times. Thus, they, too, need permission to learn—the freedom to stretch themselves, make mistakes, and try again. Only in growth mind-set cultures, where teachers and administrators are encouraged to fulfill their potential, will they be able to help their students fulfill their potential in schools that are free of bias. [5]


This research highlights the importance of school and district leaders supporting a growth mindset among their peers and teams. While there is no “magic bullet” intervention focused on growth mindsets for leaders, if anything, these research findings suggest that school and district officials could set new norms and practices which value the development and growth of their staff abilities.

[1] Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How we can learn to fulfill out potential . Ballatine Books.

[2] Heslin, P. Latham, G., VandeWalle, D. (2005) “The Effects of Implicit Person Theory on Performance Appraisals. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 90, N. 5, p. 842-856.

[3] Dweck, C. (2007). p. 140-141.

[4] Hagel III, J. and Brown, J.S. (November 3, 2010). Change Management: Do you have a growth mindset? Harvard Business Review . Retrieved on December 1, 2014 from

[5] Dweck, C. (January 2010). “Mindsets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership . P. 26-29.

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