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The Right Mindset for Project Management

Which Mind-set do you have and how does it help you deliver successful projects?

The Mind-set Quiz

  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with these statements?
  • Intelligence is something people are born with that can’t be changed.
  • You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
  • You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
  • You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.
  • I appreciate when people give me feedback about my performance.
  • I sometimes get defensive when I get negative feedback about my performance.

Your responses to these questions will start to give you an indication of whether you have a growth mind-set or a fixed mind-set, or if you have aspects of both. So those of you who agree with the questions in black may be leaning more towards a fixed mind-set and those of you who agreed with the questions in blue may be leaning more towards a growth mind-set. Now don’t get upset, this is not a real assessment of your mind-set, this is only a crude indicator to get you thinking.  So what do we mean by fixed and growth mind sets?

Carole Dweck (2012) (a professor of psychology at Stanford) discovered that there are  two different mind-sets that people can have, which have an impact on how they approach life and work.  These two mind sets were: a ‘Fixed Mind-set’ and a ‘Growth Mind-set.

The Fixed Mind-set

Dweck observed that people with a fixed mind set believed that their intelligence and abilities were fixed and therefore limited. They tended to evaluate situations in terms of whether or not they made them look intelligent to others? Whether they would be accepted by others and whether or not they would feel like a winner.  Dweck also found that people with a Fixed Mind-set tended to give up quickly when things were not working well i.e. if something did not work first time, they concluded that they probably don’t have the ability to make it happen. People with this mind-set tend not to have very accurate views of their own performance and abilities, i.e. they see limits where none may exists.

The Growth Mind-set

People with a growth mind-set, on the other hand, believe that they have the ability to succeed in whatever they do through sheer effort.   They are keen to learn and if something does not work first time round, they will just try harder and persevere until they make it work. People with a Growth Mind-set, tend to carry out a more logical analysis of what happened i.e. they do not react on an emotional level. This helps avoid the thinking errors that we are more prone to when we respond emotionally. People with a Growth Mind-set also tend to have a more accurate view of their abilities because they seek and are open to feedback, even when it is unflattering.

Attitudes Towards Failure and Risk Differ Between People with Fixed Mind-sets and People with Growth Mind-sets.

People with Fixed mind-sets tend to attribute failure to their own lack of ability, which has a negative impact on their confidence and can make them feel overwhelmed. This means that they are more likely to become more risk averse and self-conscious.  People with a “growth mind-set,” on the other hand, enjoy challenge and view failure not as a lack of ability but as a signal that they need to work harder or do something differently i.e. they need to stretch their existing abilities.

Further Research Evidence

In the past, there was a widely held view that our abilities are fixed and that we can only develop within the limits of our own potential. Advances in technology have allowed us to study the human brain more accurately and we now know that our brains impose no clearly defined biological limit on our learning potential. The best news, however, is that not only is our learning potential unlimited but we can actually change and develop our brains through learning.

We now know that new learning creates new pathways in the brain i.e. our lives and the experiences that we have actually remould our brains. New neural connections are made in our brains and old neural connections that we no longer use are broken down.  This increased understanding of the nature of brain development has helped to challenge the idea that we have an innate fixed ability.  To give an example, (Maguire et al 2000, Woollett et al 2009) looked at the impact that professional experience had on London taxi drivers. They found that the Taxi Driver’s posterior hippocampus (a region of the brain associated with the type of visual-spatial memory processing needed to  navigate around a large city) , was larger according to the number of years’ experience the Taxi Drivers’ had, so learning had changed their brains.

The research in this area is still emerging but so far it is showing a positive impact for the growth mind-set across a range of areas e.g.  There is evidence of the impact that having a Growth Mind-set can have on performance in the workplace. Kray and Haselhuhn (2007) found that Negotiators with a growth mind-set were much more able to push past obstacles and achieve a win/win position that benefited both sides. Heslin and Latham (2005) found that leaders with a growth mind-set noticed improvements in employees performance i.e. they were better at developing their staff. Wood et al (1981) found that managers with a Growth Mind-set outperformed managers with a Fixed Mind-set.

What Are The Implications For Project Managers?

It would seem that the qualities of the Growth Mind-set lend themselves well to the requirements of project management Firstly, project managers face many challenges during the course of their work and the way in which they respond to those challenges has a significant impact on the outcomes of the project. Project managers with a Growth Mind-set will cope better with a wider range of challenges. In addition, if things do not go well, they will persevere and keep trying until they achieve the outcome that they need to achieve.

The challenges of project management mean that ongoing learning is a requirement. Project managers with a Growth Mind-set will be more likely to seek feedback from stakeholders and learn from that feedback. This will enable them to identify and deal with any obstacles that might impact negatively on the project. In addition, project managers with a Growth Mind-set are more likely to take an interest in the development of their team members (including stakeholders) and will be mindful of when they demonstrate new learning.  Upskilling the team will be of considerable benefit to projects. In addition, the fact that the project manager is taking an interest in the development of team members will facilitate higher levels of engagement, which will also benefit projects.

Project management involves social interaction and the ability to maintain good relationships with stakeholders. Those project managers with a Growth Mind-set will be better at negotiating with stakeholders in a way that maintains harmonious relationships whilst reaching decisions that are mutually beneficial.  This will also enable them to more effectively manage difficult interpersonal situations.

A key aspect of managing any project involves identifying and dealing with risk. Those project managers who have a Growth Mind-set are more likely to take appropriate risks where necessary, whereas a project manager with a Fixed Mind-set would be more averse to taking risks, which could have a detrimental effect on a project.

It would seem then that that there are many benefits for project managers in further developing a Growth Mind-set or acquiring a Growth Mind-set. The good news is that we can all improve our abilities and anyone can be trained to use a growth mind-set. What difference would using a ‘Growth Mind-set ‘make to your project management? It might be a good way of increasing your overall success rate in delivering projects.

Author Bio:

Sharon De Mascia is the Director of Cognoscenti (Chartered Business Psychologists). She has 25 years experience of delivering change management and other organisational initiatives across both public and private sectors. Sharon is the author of ‘Project Psychology: Tools and Techniques for making your Project a Success’ (Gower 2012) and is a supervisor for the global MBA at Manchester Business School. She is a guest lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and the Manchester Metropolitan University. She is also an assessor for the British Psychological Society and the Health Professions Council. She is an examiner for the International Baccalaureate in Psychology. Sharon can be contacted on sharon@cognoscenti.uk.com


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