Tip 3: Interrupt “fixed mindset” talk

The situation:

Do you or others in your work environment ever use phrases like, “so and so just isn’t a natural leader” or “I don’t think he or she has what it takes?” These and similar comments can indicate a “fixed mindset” when it comes to talent. Research shows that, for the most part, talent and ability are not fixed or innate. Yet many technical organizations operate with a “fixed mindset” that either you have “what it takes” or you do not (Dweck, 2006). Fixed mindsets tend to exacerbate biases, as we tend to presume that those who are most like us or most like those who have been successful in the past are the ones who “have it.” A “growth mindset” focuses on potential and sees skills and abilities as things that are developed through continued effort and practice.

What you can do:

  • Question language like “natural talent,” “born leaders,” “not leadership material,” “a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” or “either you’ve got that special something or you don’t.” Encourage people to take a step back and think about whether these comments might reflect biases about people “like us” or the kinds of people who have historically been in these kinds of positions.
  • When giving feedback, frame mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement rather than as signs of inadequacy or a lack of natural talent. For detailed tips on how to give this kind of feedback see our NCWIT Tips.
  • Question whether you might be confusing prior experience with ability. Employees who are less adept at a particular skill may just have less experience, not less potential. But sometimes people take this as a sign that they are less talented and use this assessment to disqualify them for a particular task or position. If you think that you or others might be doing this, step back and ask if this is a skill that can be learned, if this candidate has the potential to do so, and if this candidate brings other desirable skills that would help offset the learning curve.


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