Quit Telling your Developers they are Brilliant

The growth mindset is a psychological concept that emphasizes the belief that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication, hard work, and perseverance. Individuals with a growth mindset embrace challenges, view failures as opportunities for learning, and are open to feedback. They understand that effort and determination can lead to improvement and success, and they do not see their skills as fixed or limited. This mindset fosters a willingness to take on new challenges, seek continuous improvement, and ultimately, achieve higher levels of personal and professional development.

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset with students has been influential in the field of education. Her research has shown that students who embrace a growth mindset tend to exhibit several positive outcomes in academic and personal development. When students believe that their abilities can be improved through effort, they are more likely to:

  1. Embrace Challenges: Students with a growth mindset are more willing to take on challenging tasks and view them as opportunities for learning and growth. They see setbacks as temporary and surmountable obstacles rather than permanent failures.
  2. Persist in the Face of Setbacks: These students demonstrate greater resilience and perseverance when faced with difficulties. They are less likely to give up and are more determined to find alternative strategies to overcome obstacles.
  3. Learn from Mistakes: Instead of avoiding mistakes, students with a growth mindset see them as valuable opportunities for learning. They are more likely to analyze their errors, seek feedback, and use that information to improve their performance.
  4. Exhibit Higher Achievement: Over time, students with a growth mindset often show improved academic performance. Their belief in the malleability of their abilities drives them to put in more effort, leading to better results.
  5. Develop a Love for Learning: A growth mindset fosters a positive attitude towards learning. Students become more engaged and enthusiastic about the learning process, as they see it as a journey of development rather than a fixed outcome.
  6. Display Greater Resilience: Students with a growth mindset are better equipped to handle the pressures and challenges of the academic environment. They cope with stress more effectively and are less likely to experience feelings of helplessness.
  7. Develop Higher Self-Esteem: Embracing a growth mindset allows students to see their worth and value as being dependent on their efforts and growth rather than fixed traits. This perspective can lead to improved self-esteem and a healthier self-concept.

Dweck’s research suggests that fostering a growth mindset in students can have a significant impact on their motivation, learning outcomes, and overall well-being. As a result, many educators have incorporated growth mindset interventions into their teaching practices to cultivate a more positive and conducive learning environment. But the data suggests that the findings are not only applicable to students, but to everyone.

The most applicable piece of this data as it relates to software engineering organizations is about embracing challenges. The students who were given identity label feedback were more likely to choose problem sets that were not as challenging. The students given effort praise chose harder problems because they did not feel their identity would be impacted if they failed to solve the problems. The identity label students were proactively guarding against any possibility that the results of the problem solving could also result in their labels as being smart or gifted being wrong.

In the software development world, these data should apply to both the individuals and overall organization. Imagine a “rock star” developer on a high performing team who has been given a new task. Do you think this “super ninja” developer is going to experiment with the problem in an effort to find a new and possibly much more efficient or valuable implementation? The chances are they will not, according to the data. They will stay within existing development patterns, even if those patterns are outdated or inefficient. The 10X developer can’t afford a setback and they guard themselves against any kind of public failure as it would contradict their labels and internal reputation in the company.

However, the developers focused on growth have little regard for maintaining these labels. They are constantly pushing the boundaries of what they know or understand, not so much as to create big upheavals in the corporate norms, but to slowly push their own understandings. They are more willing to ask “dumb” questions and they will seek out expertise both inside and outside their organization to assist in their work. They will present opinions and share their findings with colleagues, as even if they are incorrect in their assertions, they will accept the contrary feedback as additional growth opportunities. The developers with identity labels will be protective of their work and will only share when they are very confident either their solution is absolutely correct or their position is defensible, as it relates to maintaining their label.

How does this information translate into the engineering practices at your company? First, as an engineering leader, the data supports providing feedback in a way to emphasize effort and growth. At a high level, this can be achieved in several ways such as emphasizing experimentation with new technologies or patterns. However, this also requires a level of discipline as it relates to automated regression testing efforts. Engineers cannot be provided a “safe space” to experiment on production workloads without simultaneously provided assurances they will not accidentally introduce a regression into production. Nothing will stifle growth faster than being the developer who caused a severe outage because they were trying something new.

Engineering should also incorporate the growth mindset into the performance reviews and first-level manager behaviors. While the goals of the organization in terms of software delivery will always be ever present, the goals could emphasize the efforts of the employee in growth terms such as effort. It’s not only about getting the work done, but also how the team members are incorporating new information into their efforts. Are they just doing what’s been done before, or are they evaluating new technologies as part of their efforts? The growth also doesn’t have to be engineering focused. Perhaps the team members are working on their behavioral aspects, such as working on team communications or even interpersonal skills, such as becoming more vocal with their ideas in groups settings.

So quit telling your developers they are brilliant and switch to focusing on praising effort and growth. The data speaks to the many benefits of incorporating these concepts into daily behaviors. These concepts sound simple however the incorporation of the ideas is not easy. Becoming growth minded is also about becoming more aware of emotions around what it means to fail. It requires bravery. It requires awareness as well to identify not only external feedback including identity labels, but also more importantly the internal stories individuals tell themselves about their own behaviors.


Huberman Lab: How to Enhance Performance & Learning by Applying a Growth Mindset

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

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