The role of an individual's mindset in driving positive outcomes such as recovery from stress, persistence in tasks and goal achievement has long been established. What may be more surprising though is the role of a leader's mindset in influencing employee performance.
I was speaking with a leader recently, who was struggling to manage the behaviour of one of her employees. This employee had been performing poorly for quite some time, despite repeated performance discussions, and the leader had come to wonder if her employee was even capable of changing. This is a pretty familiar situation and one that many leaders have struggled with. There are also many similar situations in which employee performance issues cannot be resolved constructively and an alternative solution must be sought. In this instance though, my advice to the leader was not to give up just yet. In fact, my advice to all leaders is that sometimes, the most important thing they can do is to keep believing in their employees.
Let me tell you why.
Enhancing employee performance by believing in your employees!
For a while now, we have known that the way a leader thinks about his/her employees can actually impact the performance of those employees. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson described the Pygmalion Effect. This effect was initially reported in a school environment but has since been found in the workplace. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study found that simply telling teachers that some of their students were ‘late bloomers’ and that they could expect those students to ‘blossom’ in the coming year was enough to create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The ‘late bloomers’ classroom performance and results on intelligence tests improved across the duration of the study, despite the teachers’ claims that they did nothing to achieve this improvement.
The opposite also seems to be true, with negative leader expectations predicting poor employee performance and career outcomes. This has been called the Golem Effect and some researchers have found that the Pygmalion and Golem Effects are stronger in instances where the students or employees are at a disadvantage. This suggests that, when it comes to poor performing employees, the expectations that a leader has about the employee’s ability to improve will be particularly important in influencing that employee’s performance.
Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset
More recently, Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, identified two basic mindsets, the fixed and growth mindsets, that seem to play an important role in facilitating dramatic changes in human performance and growth. These mindsets relate to the extent to which people believe that their success is based on effort or on their own unchangeable characteristics (ability, personality, talent).
Importantly, these mindsets have been linked to quite startling differences in employee performance and the academic outcomes of children. For example, students with a growth mindset have been found to have higher grades (by quite a lot) than students with a fixed mindset and have also been found to improve their grades to a (much) greater extent than students with a fixed mindset. In the workplace, the growth mindset of leaders has been linked to feedback seeking behaviour, improvements in leadership capability and more supportive and developmental approaches to leading others (that is, leaders with a growth mindset are more likely to coach their employees and provide them with advice).
Leadership & the Growth Mindset
In some respects, it may seem obvious to say that if you believe your success or failure is due to hard work, you are more likely to value hard work and to respond to challenge by trying harder or trying a new approach. Similarly, it may seem obvious that if you believe that your success or failure is due to inborn characteristics that you cannot change, you are more likely to interpret failure as meaning that you lack ability and will respond to failure by reducing your effort, avoiding the task or cheating. What is surprising though is the extent to which these mindsets seem to impact on performance and the relative ease with which the mindsets can be changed. For instance, simple strategies such as teaching people about neuroplasticity, teaching people about growth mindset, telling stories about people who were successful after investing great effort, and praising effort and process rather than ability all foster a growth mindset and lead to improvements in performance.
So, although leadership is complex and challenging, and the influences on employee performance are varied and many, the evidence suggests that great change is possible and that sometimes, all you need to do as a leader is to show your employees that you believe in them and help them to believe in themselves.