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The Unknowable Potential

April 1, 2020 in

Author: Christine Pretti

Mounds of research has shown what we have intuitively known for years—the mind is a very, very powerful thing. Yet, very little time is spent on training mental skills, as opposed to technical skills.

HigherEchelon’s Resilient and Adaptable Leader© program does just that. We train mental and emotional skills that form the foundation of high performance. And regardless of the industry you are in, everyone needs high performers.

One example of how our minds can control behaviors is through a well-known phenomenon called self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby, we predict or expect something to ultimately come true simply because we believe it will. We have heard about this idea in domains like sports, degree accomplishments, organizational goals, etc. but what does science have to say about this phenomenon?

The Science

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has completed extensive research on what she has termed the Growth Mindset.  At its core, a growth mindset is the belief that a person’s true potential is unknown, and that it is impossible to foresee what can be accomplished.  To fully appreciate the growth mindset, it helps to contrast it with the equally as powerful Fixed Mindset, or the belief that everyone is born with only a certain amount of talent or skill in a given area.  The fact is, we all experience both.

Someone with a fixed mindset might approach challenges with statements like “this is just too hard,” or “we will never get our employees to buy-in to this new process,” or “I can only count on certain employees to get that job done.”  Whereas someone with a growth mindset might approach the same scenarios with statements like “we can overcome this,” or “what are my barriers to adoption?” or “how can I motivate my employees that need development?” It’s easy to fall into the fixed mindset category, especially when faced with difficult challenges, but with a little practice and awareness you can make the flip.

The Role of Leadership

What you might not have realized is we also carry around mindsets or perceptions about others’ abilities.  In one of her studies on the impact of mindsets on intelligence, Dweck randomly divided students into two groups and told the teacher that one set of students was more ‘gifted’ than the other—although both groups were intellectually similar.  At the end of the study, the group of ‘gifted’ students outperformed the other based on the teacher’s beliefs and subsequent instructional approach alone. This means, there is a distinct possibility that our belief about another person’s growth potential can truly shape the outcome.

A growth or fixed mindset can also impact our perception of other’s success. A fixed mindset leader might see a co-worker’s success as a threat. A growth mindset leader will see another’s success as an opportunity to learn and feel inspired. If you want to improve your mindset and your reaction to other’s success in the comfort of your own home, podcasts are a great tool to inspire. In fact, HigherEchelon’s podcast, Coaching Through Stories, with Dr. Eric Bean is launching in April to do just that.

The Mindset Challenge

The incredible power of mindsets is the potential to change them with a little skill and practice. To start the process of changing your mindset start with the following actions:

  • Think about the members of your team and the beliefs you may have about their abilities
  • Reflect on your interactions with your employees—are you challenging some more than others?
  • Use motivational words or phrases that make your employees feel capable, i.e. “you’re going to do a great job.”
  • Say the same words and phrases to yourself before you start your day or before a big meeting
  • Think about challenges as an opportunity for growth and innovation
  • Remain solution oriented when faced with adversity

We tend to justify the beliefs we have about our team members based on past-experience, time in service, or other identified qualities we deem appropriate.  In doing so, we are more likely to challenge those that we believe have the most potential for growth.  This is a typical leadership pitfall that cuts the productivity of your workforce and sets your team up for potential burnout. By using the steps above, challenge your own mindset about your team and lead each member towards high performance.

Need more help cultivating a growth mindset? HigherEchelon can provide you with the tools you need to adapt your mindset from fixed to growth. Contact us today to learn more.


Dweck, Carol S.. (2008) Mindset :the new psychology of success New York : Ballantine Books