Promoting a growth mindset

22 Sep 2019

Posted by Amenel No comments yet

Of all the challenges that the management of a software development team poses to me, the nurturing of a growth mindset is the one that I see as the most acute.

According to the theory of mindset, a growth mindset can be cultivated. From what I've gathered so far, its cultivation often happens through education: parents at home, teachers at school, coaches of extracurricular activities. All of this refers to the impressionable minds of children or adolescents, possibly also of young adults. What about adults who are professionals, with an active career of several years behind them? Here, I'm referring to the people who have settled in the comforting belief that "they know it all already", that there is no reason to change what has been working well in their opinion.

The average age in my team is above 30. It's a 32-ish value. Could it be that such minds can also shift durably to a growth mindset? I like to think so.

The problem

Simply put, the problem I face on a daily basis is the lack of belief that one can. "I can't", "we can never be this good", "this is something out of our reach", "we don't have the means", "I don't know how to", "we've never done that". All of these are phrases that I hear constantly. At some point in 2018, I felt like the ship of my soul was being beaten by the storm even more than if it had lost its rudder. In a heartfelt and spontaneous moment, I told someone "des choses comme ça sont comme des tâches sur mon âme", meaning that "such things are like stains on my soul."

The ways

I have handled the "objections" such as "we've never done that" with tales of success, notably those of "ordinary people" who became "extraordinary people". I spoke of Roger Bannister, Chuck Yeager, Mel Robbins, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Stephen King, Robin Hobb and others. I never spoke of Wes Santee even though he is the protagonist of The Miracle Mile that impressed me the most. I never spoke of Yoshihiro Honda, and many other figures who tried, failed, tried again and finally succeeded. The unavoidable mention of talent surfaced, as did the expected "they had something special".

I handled the objections with encouragement, with what came out in hindsight as empty sentences, such as "even the biggest of oaks was one day only an acorn" or "all that is needed for the strongest of oaks to grow is already there in an acorn". These are my favorites, I don't know why, maybe that I have a thing for acorns. I do believe in these, and many more, such as (quoting myself, here, with pride) "the biggest things in this world were built piece by piece". I find the written or oral expression of such obvious truths just as inspiring as standing under a 300-meter cliff would be daunting.

I handled the objections by getting people to start the task at hand, succeed, and while doing so, solve any technical problems that arose. Often, they succeeded in an amazingly short period of time.

The reckoning

The time came one day to think back on how well my handling of the objections worked. And I realized that I had failed to induce the change that I wanted to see in my team. Even though I saw pockets of change here and there, I had somehow failed to share my belief.

Sometimes, every path of reasoning had been explored but I have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel: I tried to convince, using all and every logical arguments I could think of, to no avail. In the process though, I recognized oh so many times the oh so infamous "comfort zone" and the fear to get out of it. I think I recognized, deeper beneath the surface, self-doubt and the lack of self-worth. The latter made me realize the amount of work, and time, that would be needed to create the culture that I want to see in my team. I remember one morning, after coming to that realization, feeling so overwhelmed that it felt as if my wings had just been clipped.

However, I couldn’t help at the same time but measure how fortunate I had been my entire adult life to have a different stance towards abilities.

The shift in my attitude

What I've switched to now is handling the objections with coaching and "pair working" so to speak, to paraphrase "pair programming". I put my people at the front and I follow their lead: the responsibility of conducting the project or the task is theirs. I would have liked to write "I let my people be at the front", but we are not there yet! Getting there! Slow and steady wins the race, they say.

I let them do and I support them. They do and I watch. I sometimes shut up even though I know there's a different way because finding a better way is not the point then. This is the most time-consuming option of all the options that I could think of. But I'm a proponent of taking the time to do the correct option we know of, instead of looking for shortcuts. I've got to live by what I preach. It's not one of my fundamental values, but it's right there among my general set of values: being an example, having the hands mirror the mouth, doing what I said I would do, being consistent.

Sure, I have a technical background and I'm still maintaining open source projects, MercurialEclipse and JavaHg, still coding in the little spare time I can find. My point is that my past technical experience did not vanish. But these days, I only go so far as to quickly give a "this make me think of…" comment and wait for a reaction from the person facing me. Then, the discussion continues with me asking questions, the first of which is usually along the lines of "what do you think?" or "what do you suggest?" or even "what is your instinctive feeling?", and listening. I then try to spot the comfort zone or the fear emerging. Rarely however, do I sense some excitement at trying something new or at the opportunity to learn.

I believe, for the time being, that this is the best way to promote the growth mindset: disproving the fixed-mindset belief. Obliterate the fixed-mindset belief thanks to the very deeds of the people who hold it true.

Unfortunately, the benefits of that seem to be reaped over the long haul. I'm not sure companies will approve this movement.

Conclusion and lesson learned

I have not yet found a way to bring a fixed-mindset grown adult to the growth-mindset bank of the river. But I keep trying. At the very least, I realized that I didn't follow-up on the successes: I didn't make my people reflect back on the tasks that were accomplished in a period of time or with a quality that none of us had predicted. I didn't have a conversation that would have led the person to express "I didn't think I could, but I can! And it actually gave me a warm feeling." Lesson learned: follow-up on successes. Obviously, that's more appealing than only doing post-mortems.


  • Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth
  • Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck



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