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Mindful Engagement as a Tool to Prepare for “Stretch” Experiences

Mindful Engagement as a Tool to Prepare for "Stretch" Experiences
We’ve established that challenge is an essential ingredient to being able to help your team members grow and develop. The experiences that you put them in, the roles, the degree to which those challenge, those weaknesses to help them get better and improve, the degree to which those experiences challenge the strengths so that you can further grow and develop and leverage those strengths. Challenge is an essential ingredient, but it also requires yourself and each and every one of your team members to be what I call an active learner.
My colleague and I, Sue Ashford, and I have been doing a lot of research over the last several years on a concept that we call mindful engagement. And what we’re finding is that you can put two people, two team members in the exact same experience. The same amount of challenge. They can go through this experience and learn fundamentally different amounts and learn fundamentally different things. And so there’s something about the person and how they are coming to the experience, how they’re going through the experience, and ultimately how they’re reflecting on that experience. That is determining the degree to which your challenge actually results in growth and development.
And so, I wanna share with you some of the best practices, the strategies that we’ve learned through our research, our writing. We’ve written articles recently around how do people take responsibility over their own development by becoming active learners? Mindfully engaged. We wrote a book, Experience-Driven Leader Development, that outlines a lot of these practices and strategies for both individuals, teams and organizations. So I wanna share with you some of the data. Some of the evidence. And the research that’s led to some of these strategies and tactics that we’re now teaching. The first one that I want to share with you is this study. In this study, I worked with over 90 different managers.
From around the world in about 82 different organizations. And we studied over 220 experiences, projects, assignments, that these managers went through over the course of a year. We assessed the degree to which each of these 220 plus experiences had those five features that I mentioned earlier. How novel were the experiences, how much change was involved, the degree to which there was high stakes involved in the project or assignment. The degree to which the individuals, the managers had to work across boundaries and influence people for whom they didn’t have authority. And then finally, the degree to which each of these experiences involves some form of diversity and thought. Feeling and action, and engaging with people that were different than yourself.
We assessed each of these experiences on each of those five dimensions. Some of these experiences were high in what we call developmental challenge. They had all five of these attributes. Some were much lower where they only had one of those features, or maybe even none at all. Then over the course of the year, we had the supervisors of these managers rate through surveys the extent of which the individual managers were growing and developing important leadership skills, important teamwork skills, through these experiences. And interestingly what we would expect to find is the more challenging these experiences were, the more growth and development in learning you would see, as illustrated by the line that you see here on the screen.
But, what we actually found was quite different. What we actually found looked much more like an inverted u. Where if the experience wasn’t challenging at all there was very little opportunity for growth and development. There was some sweet spot in the middle let’s call it a moderate level of challenge, that stretched the person a little bit but not too far. Because what we found is as you stretch the individuals to the highest level we started to see the learning, growth, and development level off and even begin to decline. So then the question that Sue and I began to explore is why is it?
What explains why some people are able to grow, and develop, and take on higher amounts of challenge while others are not. And that difference, or that delta, between we would expect to find and what some people illustrate where they’re able to take on more challenge and other people are not. One of the answers to that question relates back to something that my colleague Sherry Alexander shared with you in an earlier session. Which is the feedback that you receive when you’re in these challenging experiences. And as Sherry talked about, there are many different sources where that feedback can come from. Supervisors, peers, subordinates and so on.
What we found in our research is that it’s important to have a variety of sources of feedback, and it’s critically important for that feedback to be available to you in real time. What we found is that the more feedback was available to you in real time as you where going through these challenging experiences and not simply at the end of the experience.
Our team members, our talent were more able or capable of taking on greater amounts of challenge and learning and growing. Why is that important for you as a leader? Because you are an important source of feedback. You must ensure that whether it’s feedback delivered from you or other sources, that this feedback is available to your team members and your talent on an ongoing and consistent basis. So that they are continuously learning from these challenging experiences. It is critical for their growth and development and ultimately your team’s success.
The other observation that we had was that individuals were coming to these challenging experiences with fundamentally different mindsets. We found, and it’s illustrated by this drawing here, that some individuals came to these experiences with what we often refer to as either a fixed mindset or a performance mindset. And you can see examples of language here that a fixed mindset, or a performance mindset person might say. I’m not good at this or I am really good at this. Or, it’s too hard. I can’t do math or I made a mistake. I don’t wanna make a mistake. We often find that these fixed mindset individuals, they think about performance in very interesting and often times different ways.
Where they want to avoid making mistakes at all costs. Well the problem is if if you want to avoid making mistakes at all costs the only thing that you do is what you already know how to do really really well. Which means that you are not challenging yourself. You are not getting out of that comfort zone. You’re staying in the routine. You have to be able to let go of that comfort zone in order to grow and develop. The other mindset that comes to life with people who have this performance or fixed mindset orientation is they not only want to avoid making mistakes, but they also want to prove to other people how good they are.
And if you want to prove to other people how good you are generally you focus on what you already know how to do really well so you that you ensure you’re performing at a high level which is great for a short term performance but it actually undermines your ability to grow and develop because you’re gonna stick with what you already know how to do well. Not get out of your comfort zone and not challenge yourself. What we are finding in our research today is that people who take a growth mindset or a more learning orientation are able to take on more challenging experiences.
But not only are they able to take on those challenging experiences but they learn more as a result. What I’m sharing with you here on this slide are results from a study that Payne and her colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Where they looked at this performance or fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. And they looked at anxiety, confidence levels, performance, and how much people actually learned. And interestingly, what they found is that people who approached work, or being part of a team, or their role within the team with this fixed mindset or this performance mindset. I need to prove to other people how good I am. Or I need to avoid making mistakes.
They were more anxious, less confident. And ironically they actually performed worse. What you’re seeing here are meta-analytic correlations. Positive and high means there’s a positive relationship, negative and high means there’s a negative relationship. So, in the case of performance mindset, the more I approach work with a performance mindset the more anxiety I experience. The more I approach work with a performance mindset, the less confident I am and the less well I perform. Contrast that with the data we see for the growth mindset. Where if you approach work with this learning orientation where I know I’m gonna make a mistake. I’m just gonna make sure that I don’t make the same mistake twice. Mistakes are okay. They help me learn.
You learn more, you’re more confident and interestingly, you actually perform more effectively. And so as you think about coaching and developing your talent, ask yourself, are they coming to work with a fixed performance mind set or are they coming to work with this growth and learning mind set? What you can do as a leader with your team is make sure you are shifting individuals mindsets away from the fixed performance mindsets. Where they want to avoid making mistakes, always trying to prove to other people how good they are, to more of a growth or learning mindset. Focus on the goals you set. Are the goals focused on performance? Or do they also focus on goals related to learning, growth and development?
Also think about as a leader how you react to mistakes. When somebody makes a mistake do you reprimand them for that mistake? Or do you use that as a teaching moment? An opportunity for learning. Now, obviously your team members, your employees cannot consistently and continuously make mistakes. There has to be accountability but you have an opportunity as a leader in your team to leverage mistakes as teaching moments. And using those mistakes as teaching, learning moments reinforces this growth mindset. That’s why take this moment to emphasize the importance of that growth mindset, and what you can do as a leader to reinforce that growth mindset in your team.
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