Leadership development is as much about learning as it is about developing skills. And that’s not necessarily easy; we approach things wanting to succeed, but often mentally equate that with not failing. At all. Yet, to learn and grow, we need to shift that mindset—often, it means challenging our core beliefs.
Neuroscience has come a way since Dweck and colleagues first suggested the idea of a ‘growth mindset’. The idea that failure sets some back, while others continue on learning to perform better. Inherently, it’s about how we perceive failure and how we choose to interpret it. Am I not as good as we thought? Do I need to ‘fix’ that? Are others better than me?
When you’re in a leadership position, it’s not just you that’s affected by a ‘fixed mindset’; like most other aspects of our ‘inside’, it affects our behaviors and how we interact with others. To encourage a learning culture, we need to walk the talk, and that means showing others that it’s okay not to get it right first time. We need to accept failure, seeing it not as a threat to who we are, but as a challenge to improve. So transparency is good, and it’s okay to show some vulnerability.
But of course, it’s not always comfortable.
Accepting failure is not easy—to do it, we first need to put our egos aside, argues Professor Hess, author of Learn or Die. As he points out, and as our penchant for analytical thinking shows, open-mindedness doesn’t come naturally to us. Unlike smart machines, most of us can’t fail and keep on trying without some kind of emotional response, whether that’s frustration or despair. It’s where the very best learners (and leaders) turn things around instead, leaning into the knowledge, if you will.
So we’re smart enough to know that learning isn’t straightforward. And we know that it’s hard to accept—we tend to prefer smooth sailing over uphill battles. However, just knowing that is powerful. As soon as we acknowledge that failure is inevitable, we no longer have to beat ourselves up for not loving everything about learning. Instead of dwelling on the bumpy road ahead, we can learn to be okay with it. Essentially, we can start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Of course, we’re not just trial-and-error learners, nor are we passively conditioned to lead. The first alone would be inefficient, and the second is not competitive, so we learn in many ways. One is through others’ actions—vicarious learning—and we learn from their feedback too, whether that’s direct or not. Not just the annual performance management review, either: we get valuable feedback all the time from those we interact with every day, often more than hourly. From our clients, co-workers, stakeholders, and others, from our friends, peers, and family.
But how does that relate to being uncomfortable?
At least part of the answer lies in how we respond to feedback, says the research literature. Or how we choose to respond, I would add. To be fair, who hasn’t felt defensive at some point, when criticized?
What we can do is put our egos aside, when we listen, and when we decide how to process that information. Our gut instincts may run counter to what’s rational, telling us to freeze, fight, or fly when we hear things that make us uncomfortable. Our socio-emotional instincts might tell us to defend our sense of self—which comes back to self-definition: choose to view yourself as a work in progress, and there’s essentially little to lose. But basically, it all leads back to being open to new things, and for that, we need to put our egos aside. Another uncomfortable thing that we can learn to be comfortable with.
What do you think? Share your experiences with embracing the uncomfortable and let’s talk at our Time To Grow Global LinkedIn.
Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256.
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