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The Power of Mindset: Proving vs. Improving

The Power of Mindset: Proving vs. Improving

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman discusses the strong link between age, gender and confidence as it relates to the power of mindset and career success. This is the result of data gathered over a 12-month period, making use of 7,000 self-assessments that measures a person’s ability to accepting critisism (improving) versus being defensive to it (proving).

The research is based on the work of Stanford professor and expert on mindset, Carol Dweck, who in a study on young children discovered that some kids have a “fixed” mindset while others have a “growth” mindset.

A growth mindset focussed on improving, effort and learning while a fixed mindset has the somewhat fatalistic assumption that our talents and traits are inborn and unlikely to change. For more on Professor Dweck’s work, click here.

Zenger and Folkman take these findings a few steps further by saying that those with a growth mindset, or an “improving” trait, are willing to admit that improvement is needed, and that a fixed mindset has a tendency toward “proving” – having something to prove.

The Zenger and Folkman research showed that 8.3% of respondents had a strong tendency towards a “proving” mindset, 8.4% were divided and 83% had a strong tendency toward and “improving” mindset.

While they admit that the data is skewed – respondents were by definition people who are open to self-improvement – the unexpected outcome of the research is that there is also a strong gender, age and confidence link between a proving mindset and an improving mindset.

AGE: As we get older, there is a clear evolution from a proving mindset to an improving mindset. This could be easily explained: as one gets older, self-knowledge and confidence in ones capabilities improves, and therefore there isn’t such a strong need to constantly prove oneself.

Age and gender graph

Which leads to the second discovery:

GENDER: What is also fascinating to note, is how self-confidence in turn relates to gender: while men start out more confident that women, they take a strong dip in their 40’s and after regaining their confidence, tend to be less so than women toward the end of their lives.

Overall, the research shows that women are more likely to have an proving mindset, especially professionally.

“Women are socialized to be less confident, whereas men are socialized to be overconfident.”

There is also the “Prove-It-Again” bias, as studied by Joan C. Williams, in which their competence is continually and often unfairly questioned.

Age and confidence graph

SELF-CONFIDENCE: While the gaining and slow decline of self-confidence seems to be a natural progression in life, there is a direct link between the level of self-confidence and having a improving mindset. The higher a person’s self-confidence, the more likely that they have an improving mindset. And the more resistant to feedback a person is, the more they tend to have very low self-confidence.  Zenger and Folkman are quick to admit that the evidence is not conclusive: we all know very confident people who are simply unable to take criticism on the chin. But in the study, the results in the relationship between these 2 factors are very compelling.

Confidence and mindset graph

The study concludes that an improving mindset is necessary for career success, and that it increases with age and confidence. But social sciences also teach us that changing a mindset is infinitely more complex than changing a behaviour. So how do you then facilitate this change of having an improving mindset instead of a proving one? Is it even possible to change?

The short answer, luckily, is yes! But ensuring that you and your employees and colleagues are all in their appropriate roles are the first step. While we cannot do much about the age factor, the level of confidence of each member of an organization can be increased by allowing them to play to their natural strengths. Working on mindset then becomes infinitely easier.

“Career success is driven by a person’s ability to constantly learn and adapt to a changing world. Doing so takes the right mindset.”


Please note that this article was adapted from an article in the Harvard Business Review. For the original article, please click here.


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