November 3, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver

“Matt” emailed this question: “Do you know something I can read that would help me deal with an issue several of my employees have raised. They tell me that I am favoring the stars in our company – similar to teachers pets –instead of encouraging everyone to shine.”

In fact, I do and I’ve just read the pre-publication “galleys” of Cultures of Growth: How the Science of Mindset Can Transform Individuals, Teams and Organizations, by Indiana University Psychology Professor Mary C. Murphy, who I had the pleasure of interviewing recently.

It is right on-point for Matt, and looks at ways people who are in a position of power create these cultures of genius, where the “stars” alone advance, versus cultures of growth, where everyone is encouraged to develop their abilities and creativity.

She has done extensive research in growth mindset theory, which is somewhat controversial, and questions have been raised as to its scientific repeatability. Regardless, I found Cultures of Growth an inspiring read that offers concrete steps to enhance personal creativity and development, and which apply to many aspects of daily life.

And, I have to point out that her writing style is welcoming and made me feel as if she was sitting across the table from me and we were just having a chat. Her book is an example of how to keep a reader engaged.

I asked profesor Murphy to list some of the things that we do as parents, teachers, and in the business world, that stifle creativity and personal development.

(1) Figure out what your strengths are, things that come easy to you and then only concentrate on those.

Consequences: You remain in the same rut, and are not encouraged to explore ways to stretch yourself, to innovate, to accept new ideas and approaches and integrate them.

(2) Stereotype everyone – yourself included – and decide that’s just who they are. “He’s no good at math.”

Consequences: You have slammed the door shut on the ability to learn something new by thinking, “He’ll never be good with numbers. I better find someone else who can do math.”

(3) Create a Culture of Genius where the stars horde information and pit people against each other. Anoint them as the most creative and worship them, only be friends with them, rather than others who have not demonstrated star power.

Consequences: Everyone will think that creativity only comes from this genius group and they are infallible. You have snuffed out a culture of growth.

(4) Make it deadly to make a mistake, to have a dissenting opinion, or to challenge ideas, especially from people who want to collaborate and work with their colleagues instead of competing with them.

Consequences: This ensures that mistakes and their shortcomings will be hidden.

Your people are not going to be taking risks or having new ideas in the context of high stakes evaluation and feedback that’s just focused on outcomes.

(5) Only care about the kids who are smart, their intelligence, and let the others know that we really don’t care so much about them because “we know you’re not as good.” Demonize effort.

Consequences: That will stifle motivation, learning and the desire to actually improve. If you have to try hard, it means you don’t have the requisite or innate skills, ability and talent for this thing. Maybe it’s not for you.

(6) Only solicit ideas for improvement for those deemed genius. Make their contributions and ideas unquestionable and infallible.

Consequences: You are creating a culture of anti-creativity where you will not listen to other ideas and fail to question the ideas that come from those identified geniuses. The other, non-geniuses might just have something of great value that you will never see.

(7) Identify our prototype for geniuses and then only search, recruit and retain people who match those characteristics.

Consequences: We narrow our search. We’re going to figure out who is from that gender perspective, race perspective, background, education, and work history perspective. And we’re only going to look for those same people, because, moving forward, those are going to be our geniuses. That is really going to stifle creativity.

(8) Assume new team members have all the requisite skills and knowledge they need to jump right in at the deep end.

Don’t build float into projects, don’t provide developmental opportunities or onboarding. Don’t bring them up to speed or help them get oriented, which would allow them to understand what the team is doing and their particular contributions to it.

Just assume that they have what it takes and go to the deep end and just get going and let them see if they sink or swim.

A Life Raft

We don’t have to believe every aspect of mindset theory to find something very positive. For those in power, it is proof of why prejudging is so destructive.