Understand the science of mindset to transform leaders and teams

By: Rich Stewart
Published Date: 23 Jun 2020


 Part I: Understanding Mindset


Consider an organization that, out of necessity, reinvented itself. 

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Here is what they realized:

  • For us to win collectively, people need to trust us
  • We’ll look at it through this lens: 
  1. We will be good at what we do and continue to improve
  2. We will have high integrity
  3. When we make mistakes, we will share them internally and externally
  4. No one will ever be surprised by our errors and we know we will make them
  5. All of this will be grounded in relationships

What organization was this? Surprisingly, it was the United States Navy Seals, the Navy’s special operations force.


Courtesy of Chris Fussell, IMPACT 2019

In the early 2000s the Navy Seals realized they were fighting a whole new kind of enemy. Sure, they still needed high-performing Seal teams. However, terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda were an enemy without borders, an enemy without a top-down hierarchy, a distributed enemy. Most importantly, an enemy that was using the power of the internet to rapidly share information and to adjust and adapt as new information became available. 


Courtesy of Chris Fussell, IMPACT 2019

So, the Seals realized in order to successful defeat such an enemy, they would need to completely change how they operated. 

This anecdote comes courtesy of Chris Fussell at the 2019 North American Iron Workers / IMPACT Conference. View his presentation here.

Now consider a completely different type of organization that faced a completely different challenge. Per a 2019 Fast Company article:

“Chipotle recognizes that it goes through over 5.5 million bottles of Tabasco sauce annually, some of which go ‘missing’ in locations near college campuses along with its utensils,” the company explains in a press release. “To make it easier for students considering ‘borrowing’ these goods, Chipotle will give the first 50 digital orders in select markets a free ‘Things You “Borrow” Kit’ with their delivery order.” The company will also offer kits in limited quantities, for free, online. The kit includes a pile of napkins, some forks, and two Tabasco sauces. But that passive-aggressive set of finger quotes around “borrow” is what really makes this box sing.

Chipotle’s Things You “Borrow” Kit

Chipotle’s leadership recognized they needed to adapt to changing circumstances, at least close to college campuses. In so doing, they undoubtedly turned what could have been viewed as a negative situation into an opportunity to acquire some very loyal, long-term customers.

Let’s look at one more organization very different from the two above. In the early 2000s as digital photography began supplanting the traditional film business, Fujifilm found themselves in deep trouble. Unlike Kodak, Fujifilm recognized they had tremendous scientific assets with all of the chemical compounds they had developed over many decades. Within a few short years, Fujifilm had successfully pivoted to create divisions producing skin care, pharmaceutical, and medical products. 

Reference: www.fujifilm.com

 Mindset Science

What was the common characteristic exhibited by the leadership of these three vastly different organizations that allowed them to successfully pivot, while other organizations have failed in similar situations? The right type of mindset.

It sounds too simple so let’s look at the scientific research around mindset to understand it more deeply.

The pioneer of mindset as a science is indisputably Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck. Her many years of research culminated in the well-known book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success: How we can learn to fulfill our potential, published in 2007.

In Chapter 1 of her book, Dweck explains how she first discovered mindset in working with young children.

When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard problems. So I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. As the students grunted, perspired, and toiled, I watched their strategies and probed what they were thinking and feeling. I expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.

Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”

What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?

One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. Per Dweck:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. 

A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.