Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has spent decades studying how people approach learning and, more specifically, how they deal with failure. Her research, outlined in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, concludes that early in life individuals develop a fixed or growth mindset – and this one factor influences their approach to life and learning, as well as their capacity to succeed.
People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with a set amount of intelligence and talent, and certain character traits, that cannot be expanded or enhanced. They feel an urgency to benchmark their capabilities and prove they are as (or more) gifted than others. This often becomes a “consuming goal to prove themselves – in the classroom, in their careers and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality or character.” These are the people who obsessed over their undergraduate GPA, LSAT score, and measure their success by titles, salaries and prestige of their law school and law firm. Fixed mindset lawyers are resistant to change, and their fear of failure makes them less resilient.
Those with a growth mindset believe that their innate intelligence, character traits and capabilities are just starting points. They focus on cultivating their capabilities through effort and collaboration with others in their firm, practice group and even counterparts in other professions. Their growth mindset “creates a passion for learning…for stretching themselves and sticking to the project at hand, even (or especially) when things are not going well.” Lawyers with a growth mindset embrace change and tend to be quite resilient.
Organizations, including law firms, have mindsets, too. According to Harvard Business School’s David Garvin, the three organizational building blocks of a growth mindset are:
- A supportive learning environment, featuring appreciation for diverse perspectives, openness to new ideas, time for reflection, and psychological safety. (Lawyers and staff are comfortable asking questions and expressing their views.)
- Concrete learning processes and practices, which include knowledge sharing; experimentation to test new ideas; intelligence gathering; disciplined analysis to identify and solve problems; and education and training to develop employees. (Lawyers and staff understand what is expected of them and how to contribute, solve problems and achieve goals.
- Firm leaders who embrace learning, actively question and listen to lawyers and staff at all levels, prompt dialogue and debate, and are willing to entertain alternative points of view.
According to Garvin, these are the warning signs that your firm has a fixed mindset:
- Limited talent pool: Opportunities are rotated among a limited group of “superstar” partners, associates and/or staff denying others access to experience that could stretch their capabilities.
- Burnout: “Superstar” lawyers and staff feel overwhelming pressure and can exhibit aggressive/defensive behavior to maintain their status. Superstars either burn themselves out and/or cause high turnover in their offices, practice groups and/or teams.
- One and done: The firm has a low tolerance for failure and takes punitive action against lawyers or staff when mistakes are made.
- Project churn: There is a high level of project initiation and abandonment. (Lawyers and staff exhibit apathy and do not believe that the firm means what it says.)
- Performance evaluation inflation: The performance management system focuses on achievement-based, as opposed to learning and growth, goals. (Reinforcing the “superstar” phenomenon as lawyers and staff compete to take credit for accomplishments and ideas, and undermine collaboration efforts.)
The enormous challenges and opportunities facing the legal industry will require firms to cultivate a growth mindset, individually and organizationally. The good news is organizational mindsets are malleable over time. Each of us can do our part by:
- Modeling growth-mindset behavior (willingly share credit, don’t place blame, be inclusive and open to new ideas, and share opportunities, knowledge and information);
- Recognizing fixed mindset behavior and neutralizing its impact on projects, practice groups, and individual lawyers and staff; and
- Coaching colleagues to help them develop growth mindset behavior.