Do you believe your intelligence, personality, and skills are capabilities destined from the moment you arrive in this world or are they developed over time?

A surprising number of us, and perhaps not all that knowingly, operate on the premise that how smart we are, who we are, and the things we’re able to do are things we must live up to rather than things we can develop with intention.

The issue, of course, is that if we believe that about ourselves we must believe it about other people, as well. That belief creates a cascade of consequences for how we operate at work.

Yet none of us can be blamed for this belief because it’s a learned behavior. It’s something, if you have it, you learned at home, at school, and at work. It’s something even great parents, great teachers, and great bosses have helped to spread unknowingly.

The belief is what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset and she wrote what amounts to a several-hundred page perspective-changing book on the subject. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck introduces the other side of the coin: the growth mindset and describes its benefits by illustrating the differences between the two.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple and the book is most helpful in assisting to recognize those situations where you tend to operate with a fixed mindset and those you approach with more of a growth orientation.

The irony in all of it, and this makes the book even more worth your while, is that once we recognize that a growth mindset is a thing, we understand that it is the only mindset there is. Dweck’s research supports the notion, Ericsson’s too, and a host of other psychology research has shown again and again that we’re able to develop our skills, improve our intelligence, and learn anything we want if we’re willing to apply ourselves to a learning process.

A fixed mindset is based on the belief that who you are—your personality, your abilities, your intelligence—cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Your traits are fixed and it’s those traits that are responsible for your success.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over,” Dweck writes, “If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

That’s because every situation becomes an opportunity to prove your worth, whether at work, in school, or at home. Success is proof that you are smart and talented and valued.

Failure, of course, is evidence to the contrary. That you’re not good enough. That a situation or assignment is too challenging for you. That if you fail, it’s because you were never going to be successful to begin with. Every situation is a binary opportunity to prove you’re good enough or that you’re not.

People with a fixed mindset often avoid challenge for this very reason, they hunger for approval, they ignore critique, and perhaps most damaging, they view effort in a negative light. Effort is bad, writes Dweck, “It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”

The growth mindset, on the other hand, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” she continues, “Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

With the growth mindset, your personality, abilities, and intelligence—as they currently exist—are the starting point for further development. Viewing the world this way gives you the ability to interpret failure and challenge for what they are: learning opportunities.

Dweck gets to the core of the issue, as it relates to what we’re after at Through the Work, and it’s this: “Studies by Peter Heslin, Don VandeWalle, and Gary Latham (one, two) show that many managers do not believe in personal change.”

What a horrendous and wrong limiting belief! Can you imagine?

(Do you have it?)

She writes: “These fixed-mindset managers simply look for existing talent—they judge employees as competent or incompetent at the start and that’s that.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking for existing talent. Seeking candidates with the talent to match the position’s needs is a good idea.

But what these managers miss in their fixed-mindset that’s-that assessment of talent is what an abundance of social science research has revealed: We all have the capacity for development and growth. For anything and everything.

“A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities, quips Dweck, “It’s that simple.”

It’s how Serena became Serena. It’s how Mozart developed into the prodigy he was. It’s how the Quarrymen became Johnny and the Moondogs and then arrived in New York as the Beatles.

And it’s how any of us get good at anything.

Talent is the visible outcome of hard work. Often: lots and lots of hard work.

Are our abilities influenced by our physical characteristics or our timing or our environment or our existing knowledge or our life experiences? Yes, of course! Learning conditions are critical to development.

But absent effort, what we think of as talent wouldn’t be very talented at all.

“Managers with a growth mindset think it’s nice to have talent, but that’s just the starting point,” Dweck continues. “These managers are more committed to their employees’ development, and to their own. They give a great deal more developmental coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they welcome critiques from their employees. Most exciting, the growth mindset can be taught to managers.”

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong,” writes Benjamin Barber, “I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”

I like that idea. There’s truth in it. But it’s wrong.

Nonlearners don’t exist. Not real. You and nobody else can be a nonlearner. It’s not a thing.

The question isn’t ever are you a learner or not. It’s always: How much did you learn? As mentioned in the introduction and worth highlighting again: Once we’ve learned the growth mindset exists, the fixed mindset ceases to exist. Kaput.

“People are all born with a love of learning,” writes Dweck, “but the fixed mindset can undo it.”

If we have a fixed mindset—toward anything at work, at home, or in the world—it’s because we’ve learned it! And if we’ve learned to have a fixed mindset, we most assuredly can learn to have a growth mindset, too.

That’s important because learning the growth mindset is central to your ongoing success at work.

Here’s why: As a result of an industry in transition, we’re taking on more projects and more responsibilities without much prior experience in the subject matter. That’s normal in complex environments. Instead, we have to become experts as we do the work. And we’re expecting others to do the same.

Harold Jarche—whom I quote in just about everything I write these days—says, “Work is learning and learning is the work.” Work and learning are the same thing.

It’s actually impossible to know everything we need to know to solve a complex problem in advance of working to solve the problem. We will learn more as we solve it.

So for me, the most compelling representation of the growth mindset—the only mindset—is this idea of learning as we go and fulfilling our innate potential through the “power of yet.”

Dweck, a frequent speaker you can find all around YouTube, often shares the story of a Chicago high school where failing grades don’t exist. Instead, when a student hasn’t fulfilled the requirements to pass a course, they receive a grade of Not Yet.

It’s a not-so-subtle message of keep going, a useful approach to our own development (and problem solving, for that matter) and in our management interactions with others. “Keep going” is another way to say “keep learning.”

“As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets,” Dweck concludes, “you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”

It’s the road of growth and development and it’s open to all of us.

And why our increasing awareness of it changes everything

My friend Jade has a question she’s become very good at asking when any of us are feeling a little anxious: What is concrete about the situation?

It works because it’s a direct rebuttal to the cause of anxiousness: unease and apprehension about some yet-to-happen matter.

The answer is intended to identify what is within your control about a situation and what isn’t. What isn’t, of course, is often control over some outcome we have a vested interest in. That’s where the anxiety comes from. It’s apprehension over something that lies in the future.

A lack of control over an outcome is not something we’re comfortable with because we’re busy looking at the world linearly: if I do this, this will happen, because of that this will happen, then this will happen, and finally this will happen.

It’s how we work, too.

We sense a problem. We analyze the problem. We solve the problem. That’s how we plan. That’s how we improve. That’s how we manage.

The issue is that we often control the outcome of work problems as much as we do personal problems, which is to say, with actions we take that may influence the outcome toward a direction we desire … and not in ensuring the actual outcome itself.

That’s important! Because when our only option is to influence an outcome as opposed to controlling the outcome, we’re probably making a decision in what can be called a complex environment.

“Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux,” write the Cynefin framework’s co-creator Dave Snowden and article co-author Mary Boone.

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is a useful tool in our effort to better function in a world where our awareness of complexity—if anything, a way of looking at the world—is rapidly increasing.

It prompts us to stop and ask: What is concrete about this situation?

It’s a critical question because, contrary to our decades-long de facto one-size-fits-all decision-making approach, we’re actually making decisions in four different business environments according to the Cynefin framework: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

While that one-size-fits-all decision-making approach is appropriate for some contexts, it can be quite disastrous in others.

Instead, the Cynefin framework theorizes that to successfully address a problem we’re better off first understanding which environment it’s occurring in.

Until then: we’re in a state of disorder, which is not where we want to be yet increasingly where we are, usually with no awareness that different business environments even exist! Every problem looks like every other problem if we’ve only ever recognized one type of problem.

To move out of disorder, represented by the black holish area in the middle of the diagram, we can rely on the Cynefin framework as a sense-making device to help us assess what’s concrete about a problem-to-be-solved situation.

Only when we stop to understand the context of a decision can we determine the best way to proceed.

This, of course, is not how organizations (nor the people making decisions) have been approaching decision making for the last hundred-plus years.

But if we’re going to function in complexity, it’s a must.

Complexity, I’ve found, can be a difficult to succinctly define existence—you know it when you see it—and comparing it to what we already know can be an easy and enlightening introduction to this all-important concept.

What we already know is a many, many, many number of problems at work are being approached as if the outcome can be dictated. This is the approach of: if we do this, then we know this will happen.

The Cynefin framework separates this approach into two related (and different!) domains: simple and complicated. The simple and complicated are familiar because they’re how we’ve been approaching work since we started our first jobs, they’re how we were taught to problem solve, and they’re the example on display in nearly every organization.

The simple environment is characterized by a cause and effect relationship known by everyone. As a rudimentary example, think about driving a car as it begins to get dark—we all know to turn the headlights on and we’re all going to do the same thing every time.

“Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond,” write Snowden and Boone. “That is, they assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and then base their response on established practice.”

Established practice, or the more colloquial best practice, is used for decisions in the simple domain because the outcome can be predicted in advance, everyone is able to recognize the problem, and there is a single right answer.

A complicated environment is one where cause and effect can be understood through analysis, often by an expert, whether that’s us or someone we consult. Here there is at least one right answer, but it isn’t evident to someone without expertise on the topic. This is the domain of sense, analyze, respond.

For example, when the check engine light on your dashboard comes on, you know to take the car to a mechanic (unless you have a fully functioning mechanic-set up at home and the expertise required to recognize and fix the problem). The mechanic then analyzes the car using good practice, potentially one of multiple legitimate ways to address the problem.

In those scenarios, however, where the right answer is proving elusive through analysis, it’s likely the situation is complex, the environment where “much of contemporary business has shifted,” write Snowden and Boone.

They continue, “Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”

Complex environments call for ideas. Because cause and effect can’t be understood until after the fact, the domain requires trying solutions in small ways, monitoring effectiveness, and then amplifying or dampening the interventions. Probe, sense, respond.

Traffic during your commute is a good example of complexity. All the cars and trucks on all the roads have an influence on all the other cars and trucks on the roads. Add road construction or an accident and new challenges emerge. Navigating your way to the next destination may require a different route.

At work, complexity is everywhere because humans are a major source of surprise, as are competitors, and regulators, and the economy, etc, etc, etc. Complexity exists because all of these things are interdependent, obviously to different degrees, and interconnected, also to different degrees, so that when something happens it influences the others, sometimes dramatically.

In complexity, there are no right answers, only possibilities, because of the flux and unpredictability. Surprise is a persistent result of action, taken by us or others, which requires even more ideas and more probes.

Our efforts are to identify new, or emergent, ways of doing things because, by definition, the problem we’re solving (actually complex problems can only be managed) has not been experienced before, at least in some subtle way. They’re new and unique.

The last domain, chaotic, is one we’re rarely in and is signaled by no perceivable relationship (at least for the moment) between cause and effect. Here we act, sense, and respond because the action will provide new information for the purposes of moving us into a different domain where we can better manage the situation.

So, yes, the chaotic can become complex. And the complex, complicated. The complicated can transition to simple. And vice-versa every which way. As we’ve established, each domain calls for a different decision-making approach, so the boundaries are for signaling and recognizing when those transitions occur.

Except for the special case of the boundary between simple and chaotic. That’s a cliff. It’s a complacent zone. If you fall off the cliff, now you’ve got a crisis and it can be challenging to recover.

As a result, Snowden and Boone advise, “You should manage in the complicated and complex spaces and only move a very small amount of material down into the simple because that’s actually highly vulnerable to rapid or accelerated change.”

There it is: manage in the complicated and complex environments knowing full-well that more and more of the problems we’re encountering are in the complex domain, where what’s concrete is not the outcome of the intervention, but the influence we hold for approaching the problem.

It’s worth noting one more time: this is a gargantuan shift from how we (and the organizations we work for) have approached problems for the last hundred-plus years.

One more from Snowden and Boone to send us out: “Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence. Because outcomes are unpredictable in a complex context, leaders need to focus on creating an environment from which good things can emerge, rather than trying to bring about predetermined results and possibly missing opportunities that arise unexpectedly.”

So the next time you’ve identified a problem, ask: What’s concrete about this situation? And if you can’t reliably count on an intervention to be the 100% solution, you’re likely operating in complexity:

Probe. Sense. Respond.

So at work as you encounter problems to be solved, identify them as complicated or complex. Are others approaching solving them in the appropriate way?

Additional Resources

Every management act in our organizations stems from a core belief about human nature.

Can workers in your organization be trusted to do the work that needs to be done? Are they ambitious? Do they seek responsibility? Do they have ideas about how to improve things? Do they generally enjoy the idea of working?

What about yourself?

Of course, some (many?) of us will have to ask ourselves these questions apart from our current job because the conditions that surround us have a tendency to make our work environment trend toward the unbearable, which is exactly the point Douglas McGregor makes in his seminal book “The Human Side of Enterprise” where he introduces the concept of Theory X and Theory Y.

What McGregor argues is that if a worker is disengaging from the work it is as a result of how the organization is managed and not because of their human nature.

What’s sad and difficult and a very central reason why it’s difficult to work in so many organizations is that most of the organizations we work in rely on a Theory X approach when Theory X people don’t even exist naturally.

They’re created by the conditions in the organization. We’re all Theory Y people (mostly) working in Theory X organizations.

Workers are ambitious, will seek responsibility, can be trusted to do the required work, have ideas for how to improve things, enjoy the idea of working, among other positive behaviors, until an organization’s environment (and the prior organizations they’ve worked for) makes them feel otherwise.

Think of Theory X as a carrot-and-stick understanding of human nature: that workers need to be incentivized with rewards for good performance and punished when expectations are not met.

Theory Y is whatever is the opposite of that.

Theory Y embraces the idea that, as McGregor writes, “If employees are lazy, indifferent, unwilling to take responsibility, intransigent, uncreative, uncooperative, Theory Y implies that the causes lie in management’s methods of organization and control.”

He continues, “… when people respond to managerial decisions in undesired ways, the normal response is to blame them. It is their stupidity, or their cooperativeness, or their laziness which is seized on as the explanation of what happened, not management’s failure to select appropriate means for control.

“Theory X offers management an easy rationalization for ineffective organizational performance: It is due to the nature of the human resources [employees] with which we must work.”

Instead: “Theory Y … places the problems squarely in the lap of management.”

“Every managerial decision has behavioral consequences,” writes McGregor. “Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations, and hypotheses, that is to say—theory. Our assumptions are frequently implicit, sometimes quite unconscious, often conflicting; nevertheless, they determine our predictions that if we do a, b will occur. Theory and practice are inseparable.”

To connect the dots: If your theory of human nature is Theory X, you’re going to get Theory X behavior because of your Theory X methods.

To state the obvious: If your theory of human nature is Theory Y, you’re going to get Theory Y behavior because of your Theory Y methods.

What makes it oh-so-much-worse is that McGregor rightly calls us all out with the fact that very few of us have ever thought deeply about our assumptions! We’ve implicitly accepted things as they are and instead of challenging our fundamental theory of human behavior, we’re off to the next committee meeting to action plan boosting employee engagement.

Here it is plainly from me: if the work is engaging, employees will engage. If it isn’t, it’s much more difficult.

Here it is plainly from McGregor: “Many of our attempts to control behavior, far from representing selective adaptations, are in direct violation of human nature. They consist in trying to make people behave as we wish without concern for natural law.”

There is hope, of course: “Human behavior is predictable, but, as in physical science, accurate prediction hinges on the correctness of underlying theoretical assumptions.”

And it requires introspection: “Only as we examine and test our theoretical assumptions can we hope to make them more adequate, to remove inconsistencies, and thus to improve our ability to predict.”

Here is our task: “The real need is for new theory, changed assumptions, more understanding of the nature of human behavior in organizational settings.”

In other words: it’s to our collective benefit to move toward a Theory Y understanding of human nature, because, as McGregor writes, “These assumptions involve sharply different implications for managerial strategy than do those of Theory X. They are dynamic rather than static: They indicate the possibility of human growth and development; they stress the necessity for selective adaptation rather than for a single absolute form of control. They are not framed in terms of the least common denominator of the factory hand, but in terms of a resource which has substantial potentialities.”


Theory Y in McGregor’s words:

  1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
  2. Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.
  3. The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.
  4. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  5. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.

Theory X in McGregor’s words:

  1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.
  2. Because of this human characteristic of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.
  3. The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all.

“Change is like adding milk to coffee,” writes Niels Pflaeging.

It’s the perfect rebuttal to the change-as-journey metaphor we’ve been saddled with for so long. Metaphors matter and using different metaphors have a profound effect on our view of the world.

Pflaeging’s introduction of a different metaphor captures everything right about making change happen and discards the baggage of the long, arduous, this-may-fail journeys we’ve been toiling on since entering the workforce. What he isn’t saying is that more change doesn’t happen over a longer period of time, it’s that we don’t have to wait for a journey to be completed before we recognize that change has occurred.

He writes, “The journey metaphor tricks us into ignoring the possibility that the desired change might be accomplished quickly, with little effort, right now, with existing resources and with minimal disruption. The metaphor itself makes change hard.”

What happens when we view change as a journey is that we spend a whole lot of time planning for what that change is going to be rather than just going out and making that change happen.

This is a disrupting idea. I’ve had conversations with people who flat out reject the notion that change can happen [right now]. That’s how conditioned we’ve become to the idea that change is always difficult.

What he offers as an alternative is that change is a flip from now to new. And that the amount of change we’re looking for when embarking on a journey can really just be a series of flips from now to new.

This journey hullabaloo is a byproduct of the command and control approach to management. And no person in the last few years has helped me realize how pervasive command and control principles are in organizations—even during this enlightened period—than Pflaeging.

He’s written a book—which, if I haven’t gifted it to you yet, you should buy—that you will return to, as I have, many times in your career. “Organize for Complexity, How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization,” is a book about complexity and work and if it were acceptable to copy and paste an entire text right here, I would because it’s that illuminating.

People have shared with me after their first read that they enjoyed it but didn’t understand everything he expresses. Yes. Read it again in a month. And then again in a month. (It can be read in 90 minutes, so no worries there.)

It’s not that the content is too academic or unintelligible, it’s that the concepts fly so directly in the face of everything we think we know and understand about organizations, it just doesn’t feel “right.”

“Right,” of course, is a construct of our own collective making and this book does its best to remodel our beliefs about how things actually work at work.

Basically, since the early 1900s, we’ve been separating the thinking from the doing on the belief that the top of the organization is best at making decisions and the bottom of the organization is best at doing the work.

That approach was useful during the industrial revolution. It’s constraining now. Instead, as a result of our increasing awareness of complexity, we should view our organizations from the center out.

The book goes on to describe the concept of a better way to organize our organizations, why complexity matters at work, why our beliefs about human behavior are imperative to understand if we want our organizations to succeed, why thinking in systems will help you see work differently, and a few other informative topics. It ends with an interview tiled “Management is quackery” in case the point hadn’t been made. So there you go.

Another quote I like of his: “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.” Let that sink in as you reflect on all the culture change initiatives you’ve been a part of.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that he believes much of what happens in organizations is based on flawed assumptions. Here he writes, “Most books, articles and concepts on leadership are ridiculous. Mainly, that’s because they fail to consider history, available science, and the systemic nature of work and organizations.”

He believes that the organizational structure we all use to illuminate power in the organization is actually missing two other representations. The pyramid we know is the formal structure which is only good for following the rules. The second structure is more of a network and is the realm of influence, it’s called the informal structure, and is composed of relationships between people. Then there’s the value creation structure which is where the work actually happens. The theory is called Org Physics. More here. Go read it as it’s illuminating.

He believes that companies don’t need leaders or bosses. That organizations approach learning with flawed assumptions. And lots more worth exploring here.

Pflaeging tweets at @NielsPflaeging. He writes and posts all over the internet including LinkedIn, SlideShare (an interesting format that allows you to think with his ideas), and YouTube.

He and his business partner (Silke Hermann) opened a learning-oriented start-up and published a book titled “OpenSpace Beta, a handbook for organizational transformation in just 90 days” which provides a technique for making the ideas in “Organize for Complexity” real. It uses Daniel Mezick’s OpenSpace Agility framework and an idea called leadership by invitation.

You’ll see the Beta Codex mentioned throughout Pflaeging’s work. It’s a set of principles for thinking and acting in organizations and is the foundation of his work (and, I’ve found, better understood after studying some of his other work first).

Here is a keynote that is well worth the next 60 minutes of your day (and a useful pastime until Amazon delivers the book you just ordered). Though it’s at an agile community event, you don’t need to know anything about Agile to find value in the talk.