Growth mindset illustration

What preschoolers can teach us about organizational culture

More than 30 years ago, celebrated Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck made a crucial discovery about how kids think about learning and intelligence. Those who believed they could get smarter over time were more motivated in school and were higher achievers than others who saw these traits as fixed.

Since then, researchers have found that so-called fixed vs. growth mindsets play key roles in all kinds of contexts, including at an organizational level in the workplace.

In the strongest evidence to date that mindsets also affect companies, Berkeley Haas professors Jennifer Chatman and Laura Kray have co-authored a study that finds empirical evidence that the attitudes businesses exhibit about the talent of their employees have potentially far-reaching consequences.

In their paper “Cultures of Genius: Organizational Mindsets Predict Cultural Norms, Trust and Commitment,” published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the authors show that companies that indicate they believe employee talent is innate—or fixed—are perceived to be less collaborative, less innovative, and even less ethical than growth-mindset organizations. What’s more, employees in fixed-mindset companies reported they were less trusting of their employer, less committed to their jobs, and generally less satisfied with their workplace culture.

That’s not all. The researchers also found that employees will alter their own behavior based on their perceptions of their company’s mindset type. In fixed-mindset organizations, this may mean they’re more competitive with each other and less likely to share credit. Their supervisors, in turn, also tend to view their workers as less collaborative, less innovative, and less ethical.

The implications of these findings are significant, according to the researchers—who also include Dweck, Elizabeth Canning of Washington State University, and Mary Murphy and Katherine Emerson of Indiana University. “We have shown that companies have their own beliefs about their employees’ abilities and that these mindsets not only shape workplace culture and employee development, but can have a profound impact on whether they ultimately succeed or fail as businesses,” says Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management.

Empirical evidence from a ground-breaking survey

How, exactly, does mindset manifest itself in an organization? Through its policies, practices and behaviors, according to the research. Mission statements that emphasize the role of employee talent in the overall success of the company suggest a fixed mindset, for example. Statements that champion opportunities for professional development indicate a growth mindset.

To reach their conclusions, the scholars conducted three studies. The first compared language used in the mission statements of Fortune 500 companies to comments specific to their workplace culture posted on Glassdoor.com, the popular website on which employees anonymously review their companies. In all, they reviewed 433 companies with an average of about 2,000 comments apiece. The second study asked 207 laypeople to review the same mission statements and rate how collaborative, innovative or ethical they thought the companies were based on the language used. It also asked participants to determine how much trust and commitment they thought employees had in the company. The third study collected perceptions of organizational mindset and cultural norms from nearly 550 employees and their supervisors at seven Fortune 1000 companies. It, too, asked them about their trust in and commitment to their employers, as well as how collaborative, innovative and ethical they felt their workplace was.

The final study, according to the authors, appears to be the first to examine the influence of organizational mindset among employees in their actual workplace environments—and shows the extent to which scholars are able to leverage new data sources and methodologies to deepen what is known about workplace culture and its significance.

“To be able to take an idea that operates below people’s conscious awareness and has been studied extensively in education and in lab settings and apply it to the workplace is really exciting,” says Kray, the Ned and Carol Spieker Professor of Leadership. “This represents a big leap forward in our understanding of how organizations and cultures influence employees’ beliefs and goals.”

Opportunities for new research

The scholars point to limitations in their findings that they say are ripe for future research. For one, they did not study startups or smaller companies, where the dynamics may differ from Fortune 1000 companies. Nor did they look at the effects that a strong or weak consensus among employees about their company’s mindset might have on perceptions. They also didn’t analyze how mindset might affect employees who are stereotyped as having weaker abilities.

Kray says she hopes to take a closer look at the impact mindsets might have on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Early research, she says, suggests that fixed mindsets serve to reinforce stereotypes that are detrimental to underrepresented groups. Conversely, growth mindsets might be the key to successful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in organizations.

Chatman and Kray say that, ultimately, their goal is to help business leaders recognize the value of growth mindsets and how organizations may cultivate cultures that enable employees to grow in knowledge and ability over time.

“We know from prior research that there are ways to change mindsets and to move people into more of a growth mindset, which can lead to stronger performance,” says Kray. “The good news is that we now have compelling evidence for how organizations  can invest in their cultures to produce positive returns.”

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