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Creating a Growth Mindset in Your Lab

Defining the characteristics of a growth mindset and how to avoid developing a fixed mindset

Michael J. O'Brien

Michael J. O’Brien is the founder and co-creator of The BluePrint Toolset. Michael is married with three adult children. He was raised in Canada and now resides in Houston, TX,...

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When you think of the ideal “worker,” you likely want someone who is engaged, focused, and confident but also willing to learn and grow. Someone who takes accountability for their current performance and takes steps to improve. In short, you want individuals with a growth mindset. 

The way you lead can create a growth mindset or drive the opposite behavior, a fixed mindset. A key role that you have as a lab manager is to lead teams in a way that creates a growth mindset: confident, engaged, accountable, and growing from experience.

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Standford professor Carol Dweck introduced the concept of growth versus fixed mindsets in her book Mindset. Growth mindset refers to the underlying belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. In contrast, a fixed mindset assumes that these qualities are static traits that cannot change. Individuals with a growth mindset understand that effort is a necessary ingredient for success, and they are more resilient in the face of setbacks, viewing any setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.

In the environment of a laboratory where meticulous procedures, exacting standards, and rigorous peer reviews are the norms, nurturing a growth mindset could be the differentiator between a stagnant environment and a thriving one. It encourages continuous learning and improvement among staff, making them more adaptable and innovative.

Steps toward developing a growth mindset among your team

People want to know how they contribute and that they have added value. Building a strategy around a growth mindset provides a practical way to build the belief that our effort makes a difference, thereby building self-efficacy.

To build the growth mindset in your team, you need to reduce the fear of making mistakes and increase the accountability to learn and grow as a result of experience. The key is to shift your focus from dwelling on past mistakes to what you want your team to do next time.

Your reaction and response as a leader contribute to your team’s fear of mistakes. Some leaders use the mantra “fail early and fail often.” But you don’t want to fail. You want to try and if it does not work, then try again with a new view based on the previous attempt. As a leader, you want to create an environment where people can try new ways to get better results. And when it does not work out, the question is, “What do we want to do next to be more successful?” You do not want to ask why someone failed. When we ask why the mistake was made, all their creative energy is in defending their approach versus coming up with ideas about what they should do next.

An effective approach is to state, “I really appreciate that you took a risk and tried something new. What have you learned from this attempt? What assumptions are you challenging? Are there other ways to approach this to continue to challenge that assumption? What do you want to do in your next attempt?” A key part of Dweck’s approach is to remove the idea of failure and shift to “not yet.” So, it’s not that the new method was a failure, it’s “not yet” a viable path forward. It is going to take more work and thought to bring about success. The idea of failure, which is part of the fixed mindset, is that it is seen as permanent versus a step in the process of growth.

The key piece of “net yet” is that it is focused on the future, not the past. As a leader, your job is to connect your team to the future. Add to that the phrase “next time” instead of “should have.” We all get caught up in saying “we should have” or “you should have.” The thought is that we are learning from the experience, but the reality is that “should have” just reinforced the “failure” and does not create any energy to move forward. The small change to “Next time I will” or “What would you do next time?” creates energy to act. It is really learning from the experience, and it does not matter if the past experience was a “failure” or a “success.” It was an experience that we can learn from and continue to grow.

Setting your team up for ongoing success

To continue to refine our future, focused on developing energy to act and learn, we want to also create a space of realistic optimism. Realistic optimism creates the energy for following through on a new idea but also recognizes that there will be challenges and obstacles to get to success. As you’re working with your lab techs on what they want to do next time, ask them, “What challenges do you perceive you may need to overcome to achieve success?” Identifying the challenges generates the forethought of how to overcome these obstacles, thus creating more energy and resilience.

Finally, to ingrain the growth mindset into your entire team, work to create a healthy level of idea-sharing and critique. As a leader, you want to communicate a clear understanding of the criteria for success for any project. Work to support people bringing forward ideas for the project by seeking to understand the idea and the assumptions behind it. Create the discipline to first engage in the reason the new idea could work. Then work on the potential challenges in implementing the idea. Finally, evaluate the ideas based on the criteria of success to determine which ones are worth trying.

As you focus on developing a growth mindset in your team, you will see more engagement, innovation, and increased productivity.

Interested in learning more about how to develop and nurture a growth mindset among your lab team? The 2024 Lab Manager Leadership Summit features a multi-day lineup of expert speakers who will discuss the skills, tools, and knowledge needed to run your lab and teams more effectively. Learn more and register: