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Why Organizations Don’t Learn by HBR

Stashed in: HBR, Mindset, Growth Mindset, HBR

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Fear of failure and fixed mindset.

How to help an organization learn:

Destigmatize failure.Leaders must constantly emphasize that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than cause for embarrassment or punishment, and they must act in ways that reinforce that message. Ashley Good, the founder of Fail Forward, a Toronto-based consulting firm that helps companies learn how to benefit from blunders, often begins by asking a client’s employees questions such as “Do you take risks in the course of your work?” and “Is learning from failure formally supported?” The answers help leaders understand whether their company has a culture in which failure is openly discussed and accepted, and what steps they should take if not.

Embrace and teach a growth mindset.Leaders need to challenge their own thinking about whether people can improve.

Research by Peter Heslin and colleagues found that managers with a growth mindset notice improvement in their employees, while those with a fixed mindset do not because they are stuck in their initial impressions.

When people are taught a growth mindset, they become more aware of opportunities for self-improvement, more willing to embrace challenges, and more likely to persist when they confront obstacles. So tell employees that you believe they can expand their talents if they apply themselves. Reinforce that message by educating them about the research on growth mindsets and relaying stories about high-performing employees who were dedicated to their jobs and developed skills over time. Finally, in formal and informal performance reviews, praise their efforts to learn.

Consider potential when hiring and promoting.Doing this—and making it clear to employees that it is being done—will help counter managers’ incorrect first impressions, along with their natural inclination to hire and promote people like themselves. It will also encourage employees to try new things and seek support in developing their competencies. Considering someone’s potential to improve will almost certainly surface candidates who otherwise would be overlooked for jobs and promotions. When Egon Zehnder began including potential in assessing possible contenders for managerial positions, the resulting pools of candidates were more diverse in terms of race and gender.

Use a data-driven approach to identify what caused success or failure.Most leaders know that data is critical to uncovering the true causes of successful performance, but they don’t always insist on collecting and analyzing the necessary information. One exception is Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. He is a big believer in conducting data-based postmortems of projects—including successful ones—and stresses that even creative endeavors like moviemaking involve activities and deliverables that can be measured. “Data can show things in a neutral way, which can stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions arising from personal impressions,” he says (see “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” HBR, September 2008).

People who are taught a growth mindset see more opportunities for improvement.

Of course, collecting the data is one thing; accepting what the data tells us is another. We have both worked with all too many organizations where “data-driven decision making” is code for contorting the facts until they reveal whatever senior management expects to see. It’s the role of leaders to ensure that they and other executives are sensitive to this tendency and don’t succumb to it.

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