We have known for a long time that our assumptions and attitudes impact our behaviors. In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) discusses the connection between habits, virtue and excellence. Four centuries later, the stoic philosopher Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135) wrote that “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Psychology as modern science began in the mid-to-late 19th century and was then chiefly derived from physiology. Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832 – 1920) established the first formal laboratory for experimental psychology at the University of Leipzig in 1879 and was the first person to call himself a psychologist.
The cognitive school of psychology finally emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when therapists began to develop and use tools to help patients identify and correct negative thoughts. Aaron T. Beck, one of the founders of the cognitive school, observed that negative thoughts about oneself, the surrounding world and the future correlated with depression and anxiety. He identified a set of thinking errors (“cognitive distortions”) that contribute to negative thoughts, including overgeneralization and arbitrary inference.
Beck and his colleagues discovered that teaching patients how to identify and correct their distorted thoughts brought relatively rapid and enduring relief. By changing people’s thinking, one could change their emotional responses to events and mitigate unhealthy behaviors. It is not surprising that Albert Ellis, who developed the earliest cognitive method in the 1950s, credited stoic philosophy and Epictetus.
The process of capturing and correcting negative thoughts became known as “cognitive restructuring” and it revolutionized the field of psychology. The integration of behavior-focused techniques resulted in the approach we now know as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT patients undergoing cognitive restructuring learn to capture negative thoughts in writing and then correct them using a combination of reasoning and behavioral experiments.
For example, a patient might hold the belief that he would be unable to have a conversation with his new boss without looking like an idiot. An initial behavioral experiment might be to simply say hello in the hallway and then capture what actually transpired and what it felt like. The belief that he would look like an idiot could also be countered cognitively by writing down a long list of examples to the contrary. Depending on the problem, patients and their therapists can try a variety of techniques until they find one that works.
While cognitive restructuring was developed to help patients suffering from depression and anxiety, our basic assumptions about ourselves and the world are important in a broader context as well. In her groundbreaking book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006), Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck talks about the importance of examining and changing our fundamental assumptions — our mindset. Dweck’s focus is on how our mindset impacts our ability to succeed in life.
In her book, Dweck identifies two kinds of mindsets with respect to success and human ability. People with a “fixed mindset” see ability as static and are less able to grow and develop. They are primarily focused on being perceived as intelligent and talented. In contrast, people with a “growth mindset” genuinely believe that ability improves with effort. Their primary orientation is towards discovery and learning.
Here is Professor Dweck herself explaining how the two mindsets influence behavior and achievement:
Dweck illustrates the stark contrast between these two mindsets in the fields of sports, business, romance, friendships and education. Again and again, we see how a growth mindset results in an ambition to improve and an eagerness to expend the necessary effort to achieve success, even when obstacles are great. Those with a growth mindset regard criticism as an opportunity to learn and are not threatened by the success of others. People with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, are more likely to feel entitled to success and will give up sooner. They tend to react negatively to criticism and may resent the success of others.
Dweck describes several approaches to helping people change their mindset. Each year she gives a series of lectures to undergraduate students to help them learn about mindsets. Her department has also developed a workshop to teach students the growth mindset and how to apply it to their schoolwork. The workshop also teaches students about how the brain grows and learns, helping them defeat the idea that ability is fixed.
The workshop turned out to be difficult to scale, so Dweck’s department developed a computer program called Brainology ™, which teaches students about how the brain works and how to help it perform better. The software is now available from a company called Mindset Works (we have no affiliation with Mindset Works or Professor Dweck, other than being fans of her work.)
Changing one’s mindset can be quite difficult. Dweck includes a number of problems, dilemmas and thought experiments to help the reader confront common obstacles to change. One of the problem scenarios deals with denying the existence of problems – something that should be familiar to people in the business world! I cannot count the number of times I have spoken with senior executives who claim they have no significant problems.
The other day a VC friend of mine observed that most senior executives who are not performing well cannot really be coached, they have to be replaced. This might be a good example of the consequences of a fixed mindset. Indeed, in the context of an organization and a boss that do not know how to help people grow, the observation is probably accurate! This does not mean that people (and their organizations) cannot change their mindsets. It is more likely that leaders are unaware of the contrast between a fixed and a growth mindset, or simply do not know how to change. Of course, an organization’s ability to be patient with performance difficulties differs greatly depending on the circumstances, and sometimes these do dictate very urgent changes in knowledge and skills.
We usually describe Lean in terms of three systems: an Operating System for scalable, transparent and effective execution, an Organizational Learning System for evolving better products and processes, and a People System that helps everyone learn and grow. These three aspects all rely on what we call the Lean Mindset.
The Lean Mindset emphasizes:
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- Placing customers in the center
- Intellectual honesty and courage
- Taking time to reflect
- Relentless improvement
- Seeing the whole, integrating all aspects of our knowledge
- Individuals as knowledge workers and problem-solvers
- Managers as teachers, facilitating learning
- Transformational leadership, evolving the organization and its members
Using Dweck’s terminology, the Lean Mindset is very much a growth mindset. The emphasis on reflection and improvement, the idea of managers as facilitating learning, the idea of transforming and bettering ourselves – these are all aspects of growth and development. Our fundamental premise is: continuous and relentless improvement is both necessary and possible, for individuals as well as for the entire organization.
We recently introduced the CEO and management teams of two companies we are helping pursue a Lean Transformation. Since they face similar challenges, we suggested they meet in person. Tomorrow one team is visiting the other for an on-site inspection and mutual learning. We ourselves had little to do with the details of this, nor did we suggest an agenda. They were able to do it all by themselves because they were already predisposed to thinking this way. They already had a growth mindset.