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When leaders ask me about how to implement a growth mindset in their organisation, I have to warn them that they will need to let go of a Controlling culture and embrace a culture based on Commitment.
It sounds like a subtle shift, but it’s harder than you think. At least 3 assumptions that underly a controlling culture are.
- That without control, we will have chaos and irresponsibility
- That without control, people will slack off and become complacent
- That without control, people will revolt and want to run the company themselves
While the first two assumptions are often verbalised, the last one is more unconscious. When you have control and the privileges that come with it, you become very fearful of losing control and often become very suspicious and sensitive to someone taking it away from you.
For success in any organisation you need direction, urgency, accountability, change readiness and speed. This is undisputed. However, how you achieve these things diverges into 2 schools of thought or approaches. One is based on the idea, that without management, people are unreliable and selfish (Theory X). The other, that people can successfully self-manage and coordinate when there is a common vision, a healthy set of processes and guardrails, and transparency (Theory Y).
Growth Mindset in organisations and teams is based on this latter idea. Direction and urgency are not forced onto people. Rather, people are asked to step up to the challenge and find creative ways to do things better and faster. Growth Mindset is about enhancing autonomy, building trust and using vision and goals to align actions and activities.
In controlling cultures, KPIs and reporting become tools for exercising power, rather than creating frameworks for excellence. Project meetings become demonstrations of superior knowledge rather than problem-solving sessions. Interest in others and empathy are considered weak and undermine responsibility. Admitting mistakes or showing humility reduce your status and ability to force people to comply.
Controlling cultures use rivalry and shame to drive performance. It becomes a beauty pageant or a winner-takes-all contest. They inspire people to think of themselves as heroes and above-the-law, to reject bureaucracy or transparency as unnecessary and restrictive in a world that is unfair. To take unnecessary risks or flout conventions and principles. People are encouraged to bend rules or break them to achieve success. The ends justify the means. People who preach fairness, inclusiveness and respect are considered to lack the toughness necessary to win in a survival of the fittest battle.
In controlling cultures, perfectionism and work-obsession are idealised. Anything short of complete sacrifice and loyalty to the work and organisation is considered “not good enough”. It’s a thoroughly self-inflicted tyranny of guilt, but which can be enormously productive for the handful of people in any organisation who can maintain that level of dedication and who are able to ignore their families and their other lives to serve the company. It’s a silent stress machine that inflicts great costs on relationships, health and well-being. But you won’t hear anyone mention it. Because concern about well-being and work-life balance are soft things and distract us from getting the job done.
These are lots of myths and stories that surround controlling cultures that make it sound like the right thing, only thing, the best thing, but they conceal some really important flaws.
In controlling cultures
- People don’t share critical information well or in a timely fashion
- People don’t go the extra mile because they are not respected
- People don’t work well together because they are pitted against rivals
- People don’t learn well or embrace change, because they are punished for mistakes
- People don’t take initative or solve problems proactively, because it undermines the power of their bosses
- People don’t create great customer experiences, because serving your boss or the organisation is more important
- People don’t grow and develop, because there is always someone smarter and better making them feel inadequate
- People displaying 1-7 are considered wrong hires, incompetent, lacking the right mindset or not on board.
The last flaw is crucial. It’s the self-confirming bias that holds organisations in the grip of the controlling mindset. Anchored, stuck and blind to the how much potential is being lost, ignored, or destroyed by an exploitative philosophy.
The real secret of great work is mutually respectful relationships. That is the core of Growth Mindset. That’s why Satya Nadella at Microsoft is so adamant about the need for empathy in a business profoundly determined to grow with its customers, vendors and communities. He is also at war with privilege and status. With know-it-alls and bossy-types. It’s a generative leadership and business philosophy (as opposed to an exploitative one) where giving and a giving back are prioritised above taking and defeating others. It is based on the idea of synergy rather than zero-sum-game. Of partnerships rather than rivalry between colleagues, suppliers and customers. Of serving others and a higher purpose rather than just earning more money.
A leader once told me proudly that he always hired people who were obsessed with financial rewards. Why? I asked. Because they are easier to control, he responded. Sadly there is truth to his statement, but it’s not a recipe for the complex, cooperative and uncertain world we face right now.
If you want to really embrace Growth Mindset and shift to a Commitment Culture, you will need to think deeply about these issues and learn to observe the controlling culture in play in the workplace around you. How you are intentionally and unintentionally contributing to recreating controlling culture. It’s the hardest and most important step. You will then have to take a leap of faith and begin to adopt healthy Growth mindset habits and unlearn your often unconscious controlling habits.
Growth mindset is, then, a disruptive and uncomfortable idea. It’s paradigm shift. A regime change.
Growth mindset is, then, a disruptive and uncomfortable idea. It’s paradigm shift. A regime change. It’s not based on what comes naturally to people nor how organisations evolve when we don’t take care to make them great. Organisations and teams are constantly being pulled towards states of control, complacency or resistance. They regress rather than grow, unless we actively and persistently engineer and nudge them in the direction of autonomy, trust and growth.
Author of Safe2Great, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset