How to Adopt a Growth Mindset and Stop Fearing Criticism and Failure

“There are no failures. Just experiences and your reactions to them.” ~Tom Krause

Ever found yourself working for a bad boss? I was shocked to learn recently that three out of every four people report that their boss is the most stressful part of their job and that it takes most of us up to twenty-two months to free ourselves of them.

I thought it was just me!

A few years ago I joined a large accounting firm to help them manage their employees. Though they were nice enough people outside of work, at the office, their professional pride in finding errors and vigorously pointing them out made them the worst bosses I have ever worked for!

Every day was a battle of constant criticism and negativity. No matter what we achieved, the focus was always on what we needed to do better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for feedback and improving what I do at work. I also need to, at least occasionally, feel my efforts are appreciated in order to maintain my sense of enthusiasm and confidence.

After all, we all have a deep psychological need to be respected, valued, and appreciated.

As month after month of this behavior dragged on, for the first time ever I found myself really struggling to get out of bed and go to work. Their negativity seemed to be eating me up.

Unwilling to just quit my job, I started researching ways to deal with my whining, moaning, negative bosses to see if I could restore some joy to my job. Luckily, I quickly discovered the field of positive psychology—the science of bringing out the best in people—and the phenomenon of “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that changing the way we perceive ourselves can dramatically improve our feelings and results.

In particular, two beliefs can make a difference: Can we improve our abilities, or is this as good as we get?

Reading this now, it probably seems like a no-brainer to you. Surely we’re all capable of change! The reality is, though, many of us secretly walk around with a “fixed mindset,” believing that our natural abilities are all we have and it won’t get much better than this.

I’ve lived most of my life quietly worrying that, one day, I’ll be found out. People will realize I’m not as great as they first thought, and there’s nothing I’ll be able to do about it.

These are the textbook thoughts of someone with a “fixed mindset.”

As a result I tend to focus way too much on outcome goals, as though these achievements— youngest General Manager ever appointed at the firm—will protect me and validate me in front of others.

I don’t like to put myself too far out there in case opportunities don’t come, or I fail miserably at set challenges. And even though I try to listen bravely, I really don’t like negative feedback because it reminds me of all I lack.

Dweck’s research shows that people with a fixed mindset often end up disengaging with their problems, become depressed and de-energized, and lose self-esteem when they inevitably give up. Not a great match for bosses who prove their value by the number of faults they can point out.

Thankfully, Dweck’s research has also found a way to challenge these beliefs. By adopting a “growth mindset” I was able to set myself free.

Our ability to change is no longer in any scientific doubt. The lifelong plasticity of our brains means that through learning and effort, we are all capable of improvement and change. Even me.

These are the textbook thoughts of someone with a “growth mindset.”

When I started to talk back to my “fixed” thoughts and remember that every complaint my bosses made was an opportunity to learn and get better, an interesting shift started happening at work: The criticisms lost their personal thorns, and instead I became fascinated by tackling the challenges and soon regained my full confidence.

Having heard my boss’s critiques, I also began to ask, “So I’m understanding you clearly, can you tell me what percentage of our approach is actually working?” You’ll laugh, but nearly every single time the answer was that more than seventy percent of what we were doing was great.

What on earth was I losing sleep about!

But don’t just take my word for it. Studies show that people with a growth mindset are able to negotiate better with others because they’re able to push past obstacles and reach agreements that benefit both parties. Also, managers with a growth mindset are more willing coaches, who appreciate employee improvements. (If only it were contagious!)

If you’re suffering from a “fixed mindset” and the fear of failure is stressing you out, you can also benefit from Dweck’s work. Here’s how she suggests you turn your mindset around:

1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”

What is your internal narrative telling you when you: approach a challenge? Or when you face criticism?

2. Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset, as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset, as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

3. Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice.

As you approach a challenge, are you determined to avoid failure at all costs or are you willing to embrace the opportunity to learn?

4. Take the growth mindset action.

Over time, which voice you heed becomes pretty much your choice. Whether you take on the challenge wholeheartedly, learn from your setbacks, and try again is now in your hands.

For me this became a turning point in my career. Embracing my growth mindset, I no longer feared falling short of perfection. Rather in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Do you have a growth mindset?

About Michelle McQuaid

Michelle McQuaid is a proven expert on bringing out the best in people at work.  With her playful, scientific approach Michelle fuses positive psychology and neuroscience into simple, practical actions at http://www.michellemcquaid.com that anyone can take to create life-changing habits that last.

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