A number of years ago, Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, undertook a remarkable study of over 400 fifth-graders from 12 New York City Schools designed to see if praise for innate intelligence (being smart) versus praise for hard work made any difference in the youngster’s performance on a series of tests. Turns out it did and big time. What she found was that praising intelligence can actually backfire resulting in individuals who come to see mistakes as signs of “stupidity” — a threat to their intelligent and superior self-concept — rather than as life’s learning laboratory. On the other hand she noted, praise for working hard tends to develop a self-concept that embraces challenges, motivates hard work and effort, and responds to criticism and mistakes as an opportunity to grow by learning something new.

The insight provided by Carol’s study and contained in her book “Mind Set: The New Psychology of Success” is important not just for how we praise our children but for managers and executives as well. The trouble with having to be smart is, I believe, that it can easily translate into always having to be right, which in turn easily translates into having difficulty ever admitting you made a mistake.

We have all seen managers make a mistake which is obvious all around but stubbornly insist they did not.  At times their explanations, rationalizations, and finger-pointing efforts are tortured and painful to behold. Please, we think, just admit your error, learn from it, and move on. But for some managers this is very difficult, if not impossible, to do

Since the essence of managing is making decisions that are often acts of faith concerning their outcome, mistakes are inevitable. If every mistake is likely to be perceived as a threat to our sense of being smart and need to be right, then the fewer decisions we make the safer we are. Unfortunately, this is not the road to managerial success. It is the path to procrastination, indecisiveness, defensiveness, and misery for subordinates.

According to Jonah Lehrer in his book “How we Decide“,” unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong your brain will never revise its models” of how the world works (p.54). So ironically, admitting a mistake — admitting you were wrong — and learning from it is actually proof that you are indeed smart. In fact, a critical element of human growth in general, is the ability to learn from and not repeat the same mistakes. The process can be painful, hard work but it is essential to your development as a manager

As a manager, your responsibility as a role model to your subordinates is one of your critical responsibilities. If you wish them to do as you do for the good of your organization, then own your mistakes, model the learning process, and thereby encourage others to follow in your footsteps.

Both Carol Dweck’s and Jonah Lehrer’s books are available from Amazon by clicking the link to your right.

Categories: Learning Managers, Managing & Leading, Self-Management

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