Turning a Failure into a ‘Not Yet’ Success

January 21, 2015 Katharina Lochner
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How We Approach Failure Depends on Our Mindset

Often we are faced with difficult tasks, be it an exam at university or a problem that we need to solve at work. Sometimes we even fail. What is the best way of dealing with such a failure? Two words might be key here: “not yet”.

Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck introduced the notion of a “mindset”. A mindset is a belief people have considering the nature of intelligence and personality. She distinguishes the fixed mindset, in which people believe that their qualities are given and cannot be changed much, from the growth mindset, in which people believe that they can cultivate their qualities through effort. We reported on this in an earlier post.

When people get the feedback “Not Yet”, they understand that they are on a learning curve instead of getting the feeling of having failed, and this can lead to the most encouraging results. In a TED Talk, Professor Dweck explains how.

It seems that children naturally have one or the other mindset: In one of her studies she gave children tasks that were slightly too hard for them. Some reacted in a positive way and said e.g. that they love a challenge. Others responded in a negative way and felt that they were not smart enough for the task. The latter then often looked for someone who had done worse than they had or said that they would probably cheat the next time.

In another study scientists confronted students with failure and measured their brain activity. In students with a fixed mindset there was not much activity, whereas in students with a growth mindset there was a lot activity in the brain. They processed the error, learned from it and corrected it. Thus, the different mindsets are reflected in our brain activity.

However, we can cultivate a growth mindset and thus one that allows us to learn from mistakes by praising wisely. This means praising effort, strategy and progress instead of praising intelligence. But even the fixed mindset does not seem to be that fixed. It seems to be possible to change it by telling people that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new the connections between the neurons in their brain become stronger and they will get smarter. In one study Professor Dweck found that children who were not taught this lesson showed declining grades across a difficult school transition, whereas those who were taught the lesson improved. In another study she found that teaching these lessons even improved academic performance of socially disadvantaged students. She sees the reason for this in the fact that the meaning of effort and difficulty was transformed: before it had made them feel dumb, after it was when the connections between their neurons were getting stronger and when they are getting smarter.

These findings are very encouraging and can be applied to all areas where there is feedback. In the field of human resources we could incorporate it in personnel development, but even in personnel selection. By telling people “not yet” we can turn what they previously saw as a failure into a spot on a learning curve and thus help them grow.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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