The Magic of Mindset

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 15:18
by Richard Gehres, CPCU, MBA and Laura Weinreb, CPCU, SPHR

Decades of research show that a person’s default attitude is oriented towards either a growth mindset (achieving goals via learning and discovery) or a fixed mindset (geared to achievements within boundaries).  The mindset each person adopts will affect life results – empowering accomplishments or constricting advances.  Fortunately, everyone has the power to recognize an instinctive mindset and, if needed, modify it towards the one they need in order to better realize personal potential.  Likewise, each organization has a collective mindset that can also be recognized and optimized.  The research described in this article comes from the excellent book “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D.

The views expressed are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of State Farm, its management, or its representatives.

Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Behavioral and neuroscience research both continue to prove just how correct Henry Ford was.  Daily, we all tend to have a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’.  While we can reach goals with either mindset, adopting and leveraging a growth mindset is crucial to overcoming more obstacles, recognizing more opportunities, and reaching new heights of achievement.  As change continues to accelerate and customer expectations increase, there are more and more benefits to using a growth mindset.  The term “mindset” is defined with words like “inclination” and “attitude”.  That sets the stage nicely to contrast and compare the characteristics of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset and then dive in to examples and explanations.  The research described in this article comes from the excellent book “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D.

While no person always has a fixed mindset or a growth mindset, we all fit between those endpoints with the default mindset we use for most situations.  At one end of the spectrum, someone with a predominantly fixed mindset has an inclination to look at IQ and skills as static qualities that are largely set at birth (for example, a math genius or a natural athlete) and may be honed over time - but they will reach a plateau that is a stopping point.  The first time someone with a fixed mindset reaches a plateau or obstacle, they may call it a day and assume they can’t go any further.  Someone with a growth mindset recognizes the same starting points of physical and mental abilities. Added to that recognition is an attitude to learn and grow and cultivate traits and skills.  A person with a growth mindset knows they can reach multiple plateaus in skills, so long as they continue to learn from challenges and strive for gains. 

Henry Ford: “There is no man living that can not do more than he thinks he can.”

Further, teams and organizations display and employ collective mindsets that are somewhere on the scale between a 100% fixed mindset and a 100% growth mindset.  We’ll look at the group dynamics of mindset later in this article.

To return to the personal level: we each start life with a growth mindset, in the sense that we instinctively know we can do more.  A baby learns to roll over, then crawl, stand, walk and run.  We learn to speak and read and write.  Why? Because in the first years of life we see all that is possible, then work to emulate what we’re seeing and also want to do.

A mindset that’s primarily fixed or primarily growth will develop during early and middle childhood years, as we’re labeled smart, talented, athletic, etc.  We see what we can (and can’t) do easily, and we develop inclinations and attitudes to either stop at obstacles or find a way around them.  What others say to us and about us will influence our default mindset.  What we say to ourselves will also influence our default mindset in future years.

MINDSETS IN ACTION: In one behavioral study, elementary school students were evaluated to determine the default mindset used by each pupil.  As they entered middle school and classes became more challenging, grades were monitored.  Growth-mindset students outperformed their fixed-mindset peers, as they overcame obstacles and accepted mistakes as a way to find opportunities to learn and to do better work.  Fixed-mindset students frequently resorted to explaining why something was beyond them, rather than working to break down obstacles and make progress.  Another study challenged pre-teens to work on solving a series of puzzles that started out easy and then became increasingly more difficult.  Growth-mindset participants craved additional challenges, whereas fixed-mindset students lost interest whenever they got to a puzzle that they could not easily solve.  You might be surprised to learn this happened as early as age 4! 1

Using neuroscience, Columbia University conducted a study with participants answering a set of challenging questions, and then receiving feedback on their answers.  Brain-wave scans showed that fixed-mindset participants were most interested in whether or not they were right, with little or no interest in learning how to correct wrong answers.  Growth-mindset participants were as interested in learning as they were in whether or not they answered questions correctly. 2

MINDSETS ON THE JOB: Does this apply to professionals?  You know it does.  Everyone enters a career or significant assignment knowing they will have things to learn.  Those with a fixed mindset are mainly interested in the outcome.  Those with a growth mindset will own up to their challenges, and even outright failures, in order to learn what they’re missing and get back to progressing towards a goal.  For them, there’s value in the outcome and also in the process.  Mindsets change the meaning of failure. 3

The same principles apply to teams and organizations.  Fixed-mindset teams and organizations will be obsessed with genius and talent, to the detriment of learning and teamwork.  Evidence of a fixed-mindset organization could include a superstar leader who has no interest in acknowledging organizational flaws, and subordinates who always want to prove they are the smartest person at the table or in the room – to the point where it negatively impacts teamwork and achievement.  Growth-mindset companies will explain and demonstrate that skills can be learned, and that the organization values perseverance and learning.  Critically, the organization will make resources available to promote that learning and then use it to thrive.   Along the way there will be feedback that helps individuals and teams in the short- and long-term.

Employees in growth-mindset organizations report “a much greater sense of empowerment, ownership, and commitment.” 4 You can see how and why growth-mindset companies outpace their fixed-mindset industry peers.  It is ironic that fixed-mindset companies recruit ‘talent’ and then constrain it.  Every employee has talent, and growth-mindset companies work to develop and profit from that talent.

MINDSETS AND LEADERS: How does this look in real life?  In one of his first leadership assignments, Jack Welch managed a pilot facility in Massachusetts that manufactured an experimental plastic.  That facility suffered an explosion.  The building was damaged, but there were no serious injuries.  Welch had to explain the incident to an executive the next day, and expected the worst.  After describing the root cause and how they would fix it, Jack was shocked by his boss’s reaction and comments.  The executive pointed out that it was much better to find and fix that problem during a pilot stage, rather than have it surface during large-scale production. 5 Mr. Welch’s growth mindset was reinforced by this situation.

Henry Ford:  "The greatest thing in life is experience. Even mistakes have value."

During Jack Welch’s tenure as CEO for GE, that growth mindset remained in place.  In the 1980s, a chemist received approval to carry out a multi-million dollar experiment within a manufacturing process.  The experiment was successful, allowing GE Plastics to improve a manufacturing process and save tens of millions of dollars per year.

Earlier, we asserted that no one person always has a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.  For example, someone who may default to a fixed mindset in most situations is likely to re-orient to a growth mindset while learning a new sport or hobby. 

Henry Ford’s famous comment that customers can have a Model T of any color, “so long as it is black” was part of a situation where it appears that he applied a fixed mindset and a growth mindset at the same time.  His comment was made shortly after he’d decided that the Model T was ready for much greater production volumes before introduction to a world that was hungry for cars.  He had a fixed mindset towards raw materials and the need to scale production.  This mindset helped him achieve goals because black paint was cheaper and dried faster than other colors.  Production would be faster and using a single color would mean less variation in manufacturing time.  He had a growth mindset towards almost everything else related to the Model T:  Wages and training for employees, assembly line logistics, shipping, etc.  That combination of mindsets allowed him to establish and then improve the best automobile manufacturing rates in the world. 6

About 90 years later, Ford’s newly hired CEO, Alan Mulally, was encouraging his top level of executives to be more transparent and learn from each other.  The economy was still sputtering and Ford needed to introduce game-changing vehicles.  At the traditional weekly project status report, red, yellow and green indicated on-schedule progress, the norm was to show green status… almost no matter what.  At one meeting an executive had the courage to display a red status and then tell his peers and CEO, “We have a problem with this launch.”  Mulally’s simple response surprised everyone.  He started clapping, as a salute to a top executive showing the behavior and mindset required to get the leadership team to share and then address problems.  It’s worth noting that the executive involved was Mark Fields, who ultimately took over as Ford’s CEO when Alan Mulally retired. 7

YOU ARE HERE… BUT WHERE IS THAT, AND WHAT’S NEXT?  Given this information about fixed and growth mindsets, you may have noted which mindset you commonly use.  If not, think about what you do with observations and feedback:  Do you use them to mainly judge yourself and others, or do you use them to see progress and obstacles, and then take constructive steps?  That answer will give you an indicator of your default mindset.  Judging without follow-up action is a hallmark of a fixed mindset, while learning and constructive actions stem from a growth mindset.  If a fixed mindset is the default at personal, team or organizational levels, it’s likely that you can recall situations where challenges put the brakes on progress, rather than leading to investigations and the “Aha!” moments preceding breakthroughs.

From entry-level to CEO, there are keys to influence someone or some group to the growth side of the mindset spectrum.  Use one or all of these valuable levers: 8  

- Educate others and acknowledge that growth and learning is possible in a given situation, and for new and existing skills.

- Demonstrate and accentuate that you, the group, and/or the organization value grit and perseverance… and that it will bolster innate talent.

- Point out resources that can help on this journey, especially leaders possessing a growth mindset.

- Provide feedback that encourages additional learning.

When it’s all said and done, any one or any group should recognize that A) they can adopt and leverage more of a growth mindset, and B) if they can do it once, they can do it repeatedly and make it the new default mindset.

“Mindset” was published in 2006, and its popularity has allowed Ms. Dweck to answer many questions and learn from her readers.  She has discovered that people who work on increasing the use of a growth mindset have experienced some common pitfalls. 9

> Praise for talent or genius can signal that there’s a plateau, and the talented genius does not need to keep growing.  Point out and praise honest-to-goodness effort and progress.  Celebrate success, but also help people to see the success gained in the learning and growing process, along with the results achieved.

> Be straightforward. If effort is lacking, never pretend someone is trying hard.

> Watch out for partial effort to grow.  If someone works hard and progresses at something, but doesn’t ask for needed help, or says they’ve learned something but then doesn’t apply it or try a new way, then they have been corralled to some degree by a fixed mindset.

> Recognize that flexibility is not the same as growth.  Someone who learns and adjusts and applies lessons is growing.  Someone who just tries multiple things but does not learn or apply lessons is floundering rather than progressing.

> Finally, do not tell others “You can do anything,” and then not help them find resources and skills to make progress.  Do not praise effort as a substitute for you actually helping the person figure out how to improve, or to get around obstacles.  Do not label someone as having a fixed mindset, when insightful reflection would show you failed to be their engaged proponent for success.

IN CONCLUSION: The authors of this article hope you’ve found useful information that you can apply personally and professionally: We certainly have learned a lot while drafting this overview!  A growth mindset unlocks a wealth of opportunities that a person with a fixed mindset may never see.  This topic has encouraged reflection on past opportunities at personal, peer, and team levels, exposing influences that contributed help or harm to overall results.  Think about some efforts that soared or sank – can you see how mindset influenced the result?  Mindset alone is not sufficient to turn the tide, but if other key ingredients are in place, then mindset does become the make or break catalyst for maximum achievement.



  1. Carol S. Dweck, PhD, Mindset:  The new psychology of success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006), 16.

  2. Dweck, Mindset, 18.

  3. Dweck, Mindset, 48.

  4. Dweck, Mindset, 143.

  5. Bill Bregar, “Welch remembers his roots in plastics,” Plastics News, Jun 19, 2006, (accessed May 18, 2017).

  6. OpLaunch, “The truth about ‘any color so long as it is black’,“ April 30, 2015, (accessed May 18, 2017).

  7. Patricia Sellers, “The ‘tipping point’ in Ford’s turnaround”, December 20, 2010, (accessed May 18, 2017).

  8. Dweck, Mindset, 138 & 141.

  9. Dweck, Mindset, 180 & 215-216.




Richard Gehres, CPCU, MBA, PMP, CLU, ChFC, FLMI, is a Technical Analyst at State Farm.  He has over 30 years of experience in organizations ranging from Fortune 25 corporations to specialty IT consulting firms.  His responsibilities have included software development and testing, process improvement and re-engineering, project management, and executive assistance.  Richard has a bachelor’s degree in Computing Science from the University of Evansville (IN) and an MBA from the University of Illinois.


Laura Weinreb, CPCU, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is an HR Services Team Manager at State Farm.  She has over 25 years of experience in the insurance industry with 20 of those years in Human Resources.  A sampling of her responsibilities have included leadership succession planning, change management, communications, organization design, compliance, project management, workforce management, employee relations, leadership and performance assessment. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Management from Wheeling Jesuit University and a Master’s degree in Organizational Behavior from Fairleigh Dickenson University.


Shared with permission from The Institutes CPCU Society. © 2017, The Society of Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters. All rights reserved.

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