What do Walt Disney, Harrison Ford, Dr. Seuss and Elvis Presley have in common?

They are hugely successful in their fields. Yes, that is true. But another thing they have in common is that all of them have failed.

  • Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas’
  • After Harrison Ford’s first small movie role, an executive took him into his office and told him he’d never succeed in the movie business
  • Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 different publishers
  • Elvis tried to join a vocal quartet and was told he couldn’t sing

No one sets out to fail, but it inevitably happens. Failure is a word and concept that people often fear. Failure can trigger a number of painful emotions such as hurt, anger, shame and even depression (HBR, November 2015). As a result, most of us try to avoid mistakes and when they do happen, we try to sweep them under the rug. Matthew Syed shows in his book, “Black Box Thinking”, in practice a stigmatising attitude towards error or failure pervades everyday life and this can have big implications. Similarly, our mindset towards success and this radically shapes the behaviours we engage in to achieve success.

Research suggests that individuals can adopt one of two mindsets with regards to how they think about their abilities and attributes and the various circumstances they may face in life which can ultimately determine the way they view success and failure. Carol Dweck’s research into mindset suggests that people can take one of two mindsets; growth or fixed.

Someone with a ‘fixed mindset’ tends to believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent are largely fixed traits. A fixed mindset may drive behaviour such as aversion of attempting something new where there is the risk of failure. A fixed mindset can limit the ability to learn because it makes individuals focus too much on performing well. In organisations that largely adopt a fixed mindset this can lead to a high blame culture. If you think you are going to be penalised for an honest mistake, why would you be open about it? The overall effect can be to suppress the information that is a perquisite for learning in a complex world and as such blame can undermine openness and learning.

Conversely, those with a ‘growth mindset’ tend to believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through hard work, that innate intelligence isn’t irrelevant but also isn’t enough. They believe that abilities, skill or capability can be developed through persistence and dedication. As a result, beliefs similar to these may drive behaviour that sees one taking more chances or risks, praising progress more than outcomes and being tolerant of and exploring failures/mistakes for key learnings. Individuals with a growth mindset are more willing to put in a great effort to get something done that does not come easily to them and explore every situation for ways it can help them grow and develop.  


In terms of mindset, generally people are not one or the other – it is a spectrum. The mindset they adopt (fixed or growth) can be situational but while people can often exhibit elements of both fixed and growth mindset, usually we tend towards one or the other.

Our orientation towards more of a growth or fixed mindset fundamentally impacts how we approach our own development, as well as how we approach the task of managing and leading others. Think about it. If someone makes a mistake in your team, how do you interpret that event and perceive that person? Do you think that person doesn’t have what it takes? Do you start to look for others to do their work? Or do you see them as in the process of getting better. As someone who is capable of improving and who will be able to do the task better the next time?


Mistakes are precious learning opportunities and in a complex world one has to be willing to learn to create a dynamic process of change. As the world of work begins to change, people are seeing mindset as a key attribute that contributes to success.

Did you know that due to the rate of technological disruption, 35% of core skills will change between 2015-2020? Soft skills are becoming more important therefore a willingness to learn or retrain in new skills particularly important to prepare for the future of work (World Economic Forum, 2017).

So how do you develop a growth mindset? Growth mindset is taking off in organisational settings given its implications for people and performance. Indeed, organisations are wanting to identify people with it and develop it in others. The first step to this would be to understand where you and your organisation are at. Is the organisation as a whole leaning towards mostly fixed or growth?

Did you know that employees in a “growth mindset” organisation are:

47% likelier to say that their colleagues are trustworthy,
34% likelier to feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the organisation, and,
49% likelier to say that the company fosters innovation (HBR, November 2014).

So, what are some things that you and your organisation could be doing to develop a growth mindset? Carol Dweck’s research outlines the main attributes that create a growth-mindset environment. This includes;

  • presenting skills as learnable
  • conveying that the organisation values learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent,
  • giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success and presenting managers as resources for learning (Dweck, 2007).

Other things that you could be doing is promoting time just to think (i.e. it is a busy world! block thinking time out in the diary and encourage others to do the same) and encourage reflection after doing and model growth mindset behaviour. Did you know that W.Leigh Thompson the chief scientific officer at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly initiated failure parties in the 1990s to celebrate excellent scientific work that nevertheless resulted in failure (Syed, 2015). This was about destigmatising failure. Leaders must constantly emphasise that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than cause for embarrassment or punishment, and they must act in ways that reinforce that message.

When people are taught a growth mindset, they become more aware of opportunities for self-improvement, more willing to embrace challenges, and more likely to persist when they confront obstacles (HBR, November 2011).


So how does your organisation stack up? Post a comment below – we’d love to hear! Also, if you would like to know more about how to measure growth mindset and how to develop it in your organisation get in touch with any of the CLA team and let’s explore further! At CLA we are currently developing a growth mindset measure. If you would like more information on our Leader Mindset Indicator tool (LMI) please comment below!







Dweck, Carol. S (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Syed, Matthew (2015). Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do

One Comment

  • David Bowering says:

    Great article Lisa. I like the point you make about it being a spectrum between growth and fixed mindset, which brings out the role of the subconscious in developing awareness around ones own mindset.

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