Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Change is always tricky. Especially transforming an organization from old Waterfall-methods to new agile ways of working can be tough. People are cautious about change. They need to understand how the new structures are beneficial for them and why it is worth to change behaviour and alter their routines.

One key step in the change process is to identify change agents and to work with them so they spread the word. They function as multiplicators of the new structures and ideas and are helping you to convince employees in your firm. Change agents are people who support your way of thinking and agree with your desired change approach. They are passionate and motivated about the new structures and can be strong and crucial supporters for your transformation. Once identified you can work with them to help others see the benefits of new methods and apply them.

Key in identifying change agents is also to pay attention to people’s mindsets. Early adopters – the ones supporting you and the change processes – are oftentimes the ones with so called ‘Open Mindsets’. Late adopters – the ones who need to be strongly convinced the new system is indeed beneficial for them – are often the ones with a ‘Fixed Mindset’.

What is an open and what a fixed mindset?

Open Mindset

People possessing an open mindset are curious about new things. They seek growth and are confident about learning new skills as well as comfortable trying out new systems. Employees with an open mindset are not afraid of the change, because even if they fail at first – they believe in learning from failures and that experiences no matter what kind are part of their personal development. They like challenging themselves to grow – and how can you master a challenge if there never is one? Change is a huge challenge and open-minded people are keen to take it on.

An open mindset does not only mean they are positive about trying new structures, methods and behaviours. People with an open mindset are also key during the change process, because they value constructive feedback. They are not offended by constructive criticism or if they realize they need to improve or alter their behaviour, open-minded people rather view it as a chance to learn and grow.

Their openness to failure is a crucial characteristic for successful organizational transformation. Change is never going to be simple and successful from the start. You need people who persevere even in frustrating and hard times. They are the ones who keep the change and project going – because they do not give up. Open-minded people believe that their effort and attitude determine the outcome. Which is true somehow since not trying in the first place or not changing one own’s attitude rarely yields a different outcome than the status-quo. Therefore, it is very important for people with less open-minded thinking to keep going as well. Having change agents sticking to the new structures even when times get rough avoids tremendous fallbacks in working methods and ending up with the old processes.

Once, they see actual success – even if it is a tiny win – they become even more inspired. They inspire each other. If you lead by example you can easily enhance their willingness to try and master the change process with you.

Of course, they are still people, and it is never that easy in real life to implement change but finding people with open mindsets and convincing them at first is way easier than trying to convince the entire project workforce at once. As soon as they believe in your way of thinking they support you. Together as a group of change agents you can help people with fixed mindsets and so avoid a potential change related depression in your firm.


Fixed Mindset

So, what do people think who have a fixed mindset? Employees with a fixed mindset normally do not strive for improvement or learning. They believe they are either good at something or they are not. This is a huge challenge for a change agent to deal with, because how to convince somebody he can do better if he believes he does not? That goes hand in hand with their attitude towards failure. If they do not succeed from the start or even fail, people with fixed mindsets believe they are just not good at it. At if they are not good at something, well, that is just how it is. “Can’t really do something about it…” -is what they think.

Therefore, they also don’t like to be challenged. If they find something difficult, they tend to give up instead of keep trying. Especially when they see other succeed and they themselves do not – they feel threatened. However, good change agents take people on board and do not show off. Those being sceptical about the new processes can be balanced by empathic change agents who are motivated to help others learn and understand. Open-minded people who naturally seek to learn and grow and are inspired by others’ success can be critical here especially since they benefit from peer approval. External consultants oftentimes face issues with emotional and personal credibility. Even though the consultant seems to have expert knowledge employees are often sceptical about them. Why did management assign an external worker who tries to implement new structures and change people’s way of working without even knowing them, the people, and…. Well you get where this is headed.

Internal change agents who know their colleagues for years can be key then. Instead of ‘why does some external consultant thinks he knows better how to handle things than me’ sceptical people more easily believe their peers who support the external stranger, which opens them up over time as well.

Lastly, people with a fixed mindset are easily offended by feedback and believe that their abilities determine everything. The latter goes hand in hand with ‘I can what I can, I can’t do what I can’t’ way of thinking. Identifying their skills and matching them with skillsets needed within the new structures can help them accept the change. However, be careful they do not get stuck in old ways, but actually do understand how that skillset applies in the new setting.

The really tricky part is the negative feelings about feedback. How to change the system and learn from failure (which are unavoidable during change) if people don’t accept constructive feedback and hence resist to take part in learning? There is no one-fits-all-solution here. People are individuals and they need to be treated as such. But giving good feedback is a key skill. In a Nutshell there are certain aspects of good feedback:

  1. Create a safe space and stay objective.
  2. Stay related. Feedback should be related to the topic at hand.
  3. Be positive, do not only unload negative feedback.
  4. Say it now – don’t wait too long for giving feedback.
  5. Listen to and consider the other person’s thoughts.
  6. Lead by example. Ask for feedback first and accept it.
  7. Don’t criticise in public.


These are only a few first insights into good feedback and how to deal with employees having a fixed mindset. There is much more about it to know and learn which we will discuss in more detail in future articles.

However, when implementing new structures, e.g. agile ones, it is important to be aware of these differing mindsets. Of course, this is not black and white, many people are moving along the spectrum in between the two extremes. Understanding these different ways of thinking can help you implementing change though.

As Kotter explains in his 8 steps of implementing change, after you create a sense of urgency form your guiding coalition. This guiding coalition is your group of change agents who are motivated to conquer the change and encourage others to take it on and are contact persons for people having issues or concerns during the change processes.

Understanding these two different mindsets is also important to figure out how to deal with people. You can never treat them all the same way and understanding their state of mind facilitates leading them.

This was a first introduction into the difference of an open and fixed mindset. Stay tuned to read soon on our blog more about how to deal with fixed-minded employees, how to provide good feedback and how to identify your group of change agents in detail.

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