Blog: Driving Success Right Off the Cliff


All businesses are driven toward success. Of course, success can be a subjective thing, depending on whom you ask. It’s ironic to think that from an organizational development perspective, the preoccupation with continued success can mark the beginning of long-term failure.

Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, in their Harvard Business Review article, “Why Organizations Don’t Learn,” suggest excessive focus on growth and performance creates challenges for any business, including:

    • Bias Toward Success — excessive focus on winning
    • Fear of Failure — hesitation to innovate for fear of retribution
    • Fixed Mindset (vs. Growth Mindset) — limits the ability to learn because it makes individuals focus too much on performing well
    • Overreliance on Past Performance — Wins valued over demonstrable skills and competencies
  • Attribution Bias — Ascribing successes to hard work, brilliance, and skill rather than luck, timing, and circumstance

If you start to see these things in your organization, you may be steering toward the guardrail without even realizing it. A fixed corporate mindset may be the one that made you successful, but it won’t be the one that keeps you there. If there’s one thing we know about modern workplace is that it is in a constant state of change.

Leading Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck argued that the pivotal quality separating successful people from their unsuccessful counterparts is whether they think their intelligence can be developed (growth mindset) versus believing it is fixed. In an interview with Education World magazine, she shared this topic in relationship to students:

“This is something that really intrigued me from the beginning. It shows that being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mindset will help students become more able over time.”

The same that holds true for students holds true for all members of the professional workforce. If the corporate culture remains focused on winning and sustained success through a fixed mindset, it is doomed to fail.

There is supportive science to back these claims, too.

Jason S. Moser and his colleagues at Michigan State University examined the neural mechanisms underlying these differing reactions to mistakes. Data showed that those with a fixed mindset display considerably less brain activity than those with a growth mindset, who actively process errors and learn from them.

What it comes down to is this; people as well as organizations need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them.

In the world of education, they are preaching, teaching, and implementing ways to encourage and foster a growth mindset with students. These strategies include:

  1. Play up personal strengths
  2. Play down competitions
  3. Provide opportunities to try out new things
  4. Encourage practice
  5. Celebrate mistakes
  6. Idealize improvement
  7. Praise hard work and effort

I know this is great for education, which is a controlled learning environment, but in a corporate setting could these strategies really fly?

The answer is yes, mostly.

As businesses continue to move toward a competency-based performance model, the metrics are being put in place that will target improvement, effort, and growth in skills and knowledge over more subjective criteria. However, trying to remove competition from the equation will be a much greater challenge, as that is a primary driver for all for-profit companies.

The greatest strategy that will save successful companies from growing complacent and falling asleep at the wheel will be their willingness to encourage innovation (see fear of failure).

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is right in saying:

“Because, you know, resilience — if you think of it in terms of the Gold Rush, then you’d be pretty depressed right now because the last nugget of gold would be gone. But the good thing is, with innovation, there isn’t a last nugget. Every new thing creates two new questions and two new opportunities.”

Joseph F. Bastian, president of The Human Performance Network, is a regular contributor to and DBusiness Daily News.

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