The mindset that stops creative teams fulfilling their potential, and one tactic to change it.
Have you ever heard a member of your creative team say “I can’t do that”?
What about “I’m no good at this”?
Or “I’ll never be able to do it”?
We’re all critical of our own abilities sometimes, but if you’ve heard phrases like that coming from your team, they might be suffering with something more than just critical thoughts. They might be suffering with a mindset that’s stopping them from fulfilling their potential.
How do we get to be good at things?
In 2006, psychology professor and researcher Carol Dweck published a book which outlined the culmination of research on our understanding of where intellectual and cognitive ability comes from. Dweck established that everyone was on a continuum of “implicit views” about where ability originated; if it was innate and given from birth, you have a fixed mindset, and if it’s based in hard work and endeavour, you have a growth mindset.
Another name for these two mindsets are the entity theory of intelligence and the incremental theory of intelligence. In the first, you have a fixed mindset. In the second, you have a growth mindset.
Spotting a fixed mindset
Dweck found people’s place on the continuum was especially evident in their reaction to failure. People with growth mindsets realise that learning and development comes through failure. People with fixed mindsets see failure as something to avoid, as it’s a negative comment on traits which they cannot change.
As an mentor, I’ve seen plenty of people with a fixed mindset. I spotted it through their approach to failure, but also their approach to opportunities to grow; they shut it down as quickly as possible.
Here are a few things I’ve overheard as an educator which demonstrate a fixed mindset:
“I’m lazy…so don’t ask me to do too much work.”
“I’m not very good at layout…so I’m leaving it until last.”
“I find decision making really hard…
will you tell me what to do?”
The case of the silent partner
Here’s a little anecdote to show how the fixed mindset works for young creatives.
I got my students at university to do a ‘silent partner’ feedback activity. In pairs, students gave their partner four pieces of critical and thoughtful feedback on a recent project. During this, the partner couldn’t speak – they were only allowed to write down feedback.
The pairs then swapped over so each person received feedback silently. Only they were they allowed to discuss it.
Naturally, I expected this to be a difficult activity – it takes a strong person to not immediately defend themselves against criticism. But I didn’t expect my students to hate it.
They interrupted their partners. They told me how much they hated it. They argued that they shouldn’t have to do it. And they all agreed how difficult it was once the session was over.
(This is why I like my students. Because they tell me what they really think!)
Most of us would struggle to accept feedback silently. But people with fixed mindsets find it incredibly difficult. Rather than an opportunity for growth, for people with fixed mindsets criticism feels like a judgment they can’t do anything about.
Feedback for these young creatives wasn’t an opportunity for growth, but a barrier they couldn’t overcome.
What’s so bad about a fixed mindset?
No personality trait is better or worse than another – they’re simply attributes. But certain attributes are more useful for certain careers or lifestyles. Having a fixed mindset is the one thing which will prevent a young creative team from fulfilling their potential.
The realism of a fixed mindset is useful, especially when you’re talking about your own skills. I can say ‘I don’t have a head for numbers’, rather than believing I have an infinite capacity to become the world’s finest accountant.
But sticking with a fixed mindset means you can’t progress from that realism. It turns attributes into barriers. It attaches negative emotions like shame or fear to traits, making them harder to talk about. And it removes agency – our ability to change things – from our own skills.
A fixed mindset in young creative teams
Young creatives are presented with things they haven’t done before on a daily basis. I’m always throwing new ideas at my mentees to see what’ll stick. They’re asked to do things which are difficult and they might not be very good at them.
Young creatives with a fixed mindset are much less likely to progress in their career than those with a growth mindset, because people with growth mindsets give new things a try, even when they think they might fail.
Creative processes like coming up with ideas and expressing yourself are risky, because you’re exposing yourself to others. Creative teams with a fixed mindset are likely to hold themselves back because they believe they’re no good at coming up with ideas, or that they’re no good at expressing themselves.
The employee who said they’re lazy will always miss out on opportunities where hard work is involved.
The employee who said they’re not very good at layout will always miss out on opportunities to develop design skills.
And the employee who said they hate decision making will always miss out on opportunities to lead.
A tactic you can use to encourage a growth mindset
The most uplifting element of all this is that Carol Dweck points out fixed mindsets are not, in reality, fixed – they can be changed.
It’s a slow process to encourage young creatives to have a growth mindset, but the benefits for them and your business are significant.
I’ve developed 12 simple tactics which can be used by leaders to encourage a growth mindset in their young creative team. They really do work – even after one semester the students I used them with were more willing to share ideas, work on feedback and push themselves.
Here’s one of the tactics I regularly use with my mentees to help get rid of worries around failure: time limits on coming up with ideas.
When this is for a client or a deadline, this process is high-stress. But if there are a spare fifteen minutes in the day, ask your team to come up with fifteen (or more) creative ideas for a new client, business development or new product. Or try five minutes and five ideas (over 15 minutes and I find their energy runs out). Generating ideas like this is fun, fast-paced, and significantly reduces worry about failure because it’s about volume, not ‘perfect solutions’.
I’ve also found some of strangest and most interesting ideas emerge during these short-burst sessions. Because creatives are looking to fill a list, they’re less likely to discard an idea which seems unlikely.
My mentees normally find this challenging at first, but over the course of our work together it helps them to be more open and radical with their ideas; with my students, it also increase their willingness to pitch in during group brainstorming, resulting in more innovative ideas.
With the right mindset, a young creative team can generate more interesting ideas, find better cohesion and develop their talents as individuals – leading to greater success for your business.