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How to develop a growth mindset culture

Following Microsoft’s transformational experience, organisations can create a growth mindset culture in five simple steps.

In my seven years at Microsoft, I have seen our culture transform. Fundamental to this transformation is the belief in a growth mindset, which starts with the understanding that everyone can grow and develop; that potential is nurtured, not pre-determined; and that anyone can change their mindset.

So, what is a growth mindset?

Our mindset is the way we think and how we make sense of a situation. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, researched this area deeply and developed the term “growth mindset”. A growth mindset refers to a belief that understanding and abilities can evolve, and that our attitude and mindset have an incredible influence over our skills and abilities. Those with a growth mindset can push the boundaries of what’s possible and unlock new business and personal progression opportunities by being open to new ways of working.

On the other side, a fixed mindset is one that assumes abilities and understanding are determined. Those with a fixed mindset may not believe that intelligence can be enhanced, or believe that “you either have it, or you don’t” when it comes to abilities and talents.

What does having a growth mindset look like?

People with a growth mindset believe they can develop by learning from others, taking risks, failing fast, but always learning.  They recognise that people may, of course, have natural talents, but anyone can learn and grow in any area. It doesn’t mean that anyone can become an Olympic athlete or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but anyone can improve and strengthen their abilities. It is through feedback and learning from our mistakes that we learn and grow.

With a fixed mindset, however, mistakes can be viewed as a failure and the person responsible deemed to be no good. People with this mindset like to avoid challenges by staying in their comfort zone, and can feel threatened by the success of others.

It is easy to see the difference between the two mindsets outlined in Table 1 when it is black and white. While we can all aspire to have a growth mindset, if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that it is easy to slip into a fixed mindset in some situations.

Have you ever told yourself that you can’t do something? Whether it relates to going for a new role, developing a new skill or speaking up in a challenging situation, there can often be times when we establish invisible barriers that limit our belief about our potential. Awareness of these self-imposed barriers is the first step in understanding what it is to have a growth mindset.

Within the accountancy profession, there may also be a tendency towards fixed mindset thinking. In an article for Accounting WEB entitled “Develop Your Growth Mindset Practice”, Richard Hattersley mentions that accountants are prone to a fixed mindset because of the “tendency to label themselves in a pigeonhole”.  This label is attributable to the fact that a significant portion of the work of accountants is analytical, technical and sometimes routine.

As with many industries right now, the accounting profession is entering a time of significant change. New technologies such as robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning are changing the business environment. 

The role of the typical accountant is also evolving and changing, and it is more important than ever before to have a growth mindset to transform and continue to be relevant in the future.

How to cultivate a growth mindset

In Microsoft, some manifestation of the growth mindset is almost always present. It can appear in how we engage with customers, how we interact with our colleagues, how we conduct our meetings, how we take on challenges, how we learn from mistakes and how we give and receive feedback. Having a growth mindset is an integral part of our ongoing cultural transformation, changing how we do things and how we work together to achieve more for our customers and society overall. This transformation has been a journey, however, which has been led by our CEO Satya Nadella and permeated throughout the Microsoft team. 

Through this journey, the five tips I would share to encourage a growth mindset culture are:

1. Raise awareness

Discuss these mindsets with your teams. Knowledge of these different mindsets is key to understanding your behaviour in certain situations. If someone says that something can’t be done, challenge them to see if they have a fixed mindset on an issue or play devil’s advocate to avoid groupthink.

2. Step out of your comfort zone

Seek out new challenges and new opportunities to push yourself beyond your current capabilities. Be curious and embrace these challenges as opportunities to develop and strengthen your abilities.

3. Seek feedback

Look for feedback from others and recognise this not as criticism, but as a gift.

4. Learn from your mistakes

Reframe setbacks or failures as opportunities to learn. Every successful person has had to deal with setbacks along the way; it is how we view these setbacks that make the difference. Making mistakes leads us to a pathway to mastery. 

5. Inspire and be inspired

Leaders and managers have a significant role to play in how the growth mindset culture is nurtured within a team or organisation. How you, as a manager, react to your own mistakes or your team’s mistakes is critical. Are you defensive of your mistakes? Do you step back and allow your team to view a mistake as a learning opportunity? Do you ensure that the efforts and learnings of the group are recognised?

As we enter times of change, whether political, economic or technological, there can be a focus on strategies to deal with this uncertainty. Nurturing a growth mindset culture can have a profound effect on the outlook of your workforce and therefore, how the chosen strategy is implemented. 

How you, your team or your workforce view uncertainty, how you approach new challenges, and how you deal with setbacks are all driven by your mindset and the culture created within your organisation. The importance of the growth mindset culture for accounting professionals, as well as organisations, has never been more critical. As Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Susan O’Reilly FCA is Group Financial Controller, EMEA Operations, at Microsoft.

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Accountancy Ireland