Encouraging a Growth Mindset in the Workplace – Part II

Welcome to our latest guest blog post! We are excited to host Yvonne Starkey CA(SA) as our guest author this week – her piece below details some fantastic insights on how to encourage a growth mindset in the workplace and is Part 2 of a 2-part series. 

You can read Part 1 here.

In Part 1, we looked at a more practical description of what Growth and Fixed Mindsets look like in the workplace, and how it can impact the company

One of the concepts I emphasised is the instinctive, reactive nature of our mindsets, and the fact that our instincts and first responses can dictate our actions. 

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at how we can help foster a Growth Mindset in ourselves and those around us.

Growth requires mistakes – Yours AND others

A Growth Mindset sounds lovely. We all want it, we want our staff and colleagues and leaders to have one. The less glamorous side of this is that it requires a tolerance for making mistakes

This is a practicality that is tough to incorporate on a daily basis. If you actively want to encourage growth mindsets, you need to ensure that your work culture doesn’t demonise mistakes

If people are trying to do something they haven’t done, mistakes are going to happen! If they know that they’ll get assistance, clarification and improved skills when something starts going wrong, they are far more likely to take the risk and try to stretch themselves. 

However, if they can see there’s a culture of impatience, irritation and explicit or implicit punishment of mistakes (whether this is direct, or an ‘office reputation’ that’s impacted), then they are far more likely to stay in the safe zones. 

This is fine for getting things done that they’ve always done, but won’t broaden their skills, nor the combined ability of the company itself. No one is going to take risks, take on more complex challenges and responsibilities, or take initiative if they know that the payoff for making a mistake will be bigger than any possible positive outcome. It’s not worth the risk.

‘Culture’ is as simple as what you do on a normal, daily, basis. People in the company will be very quick to pick up on and observe their peers’ and their leaders’ reactions to mistakes, repeated queries for clarification or assistance. 

This will consciously or unconsciously train them about the culture of growth and how to respond to challenges to avoid being on the wrong end of the table in their performance discussions or general work perceptions and experiences.

You don’t have to be ‘the boss’ to improve this

It’s easy to place the responsibility for this on the leaders of the company.

 However, everyone in the company has a role to play in developing and improving a culture of growth, and helping those around them, and themselves, to develop a Growth Mindset. 

What impression do we give out when people ask us questions? 

Whether it’s a peer, or someone who reports to us, our response to queries for assistance and clarification is one of the most important factors in this discussion. It is so easy to dismiss queries, put them off (“Come back later, I don’t have time now”), sigh impatiently, make comments that imply they should know this already (“We covered this last month, why don’t you remember?”). 

We may not intend to be negative or dismissive, but there’s always a deadline, always a chaotic schedule and seemingly impossible to-do list that everyone is chasing. It’s absolutely understandable that someone else’s query is going to get in the way of our productivity and interrupt our day, and we’re very likely to respond impatiently. 

It takes active, conscious thought of the possible impact of our response to the person asking. Consider a new colleague, they’re already nervous of asking you, because they’re well aware of the fact that they have no idea what’s going on and they’re uncomfortable. Your initial response may impact their approach to challenging situations for the rest of their time there. “Asking for clarification is clearly not a good thing, so in future I need to struggle alone and just agonise over it until I get it right”. This might sound positive. People need to learn to work alone and figure things out. Sure, but we could waste a lot of time that way. 

People are also more likely to try to hide mistakes, not ask for clarification and just hope that errors aren’t found. This is not positive. It’s far more efficient to identify mistakes sooner, and re-align work and understanding. (Just ask any audit manager who’s facepalmed themselves repeatedly at 21:00 on a Thursday night when reviewing an audit file and realised that a whole section needs to be redone!)

Do we ‘hide’ our mistakes? Do we try to create the impression that we’re infallible?

In a professional environment, this is a trap that’s very easy to fall into. We instinctively believe that if people know that we make mistakes, we’ll lose credibility in their eyes. We’ll become vulnerable and lose authority. People won’t trust our decisions and work because they’ll be questioning our competence. 

This is generally not true. We hear a lot about the value of ‘vulnerability’ in our leaders, and this should apply to us as well. If we’re more open about our challenging moments, actions, mistakes and journeys, it encourages other people to believe that they too can learn and improve. It seems obvious, but this is something that we can know logically, but not ‘feel’ on a daily basis. 

Hearing your manager say “Oh yeah, I also struggled with this task when I did it the first few times” instantly makes you feel less incompetent and useless for not knowing. Instead of the indictment on your intelligence that you may normally feel, you can feel a sense of relief that you’re not alone. Other people struggle too. 

There’s a great international organisation that holds global events called “F***up Nights”. Their goal is to share stories of unsuccessful businesses, business decisions and failed entrepreneurial endeavors. 

We need these types of discussions in the workplace! Stories of challenges overcome, failures, mistakes and personal experiences that focus on the lessons learnt and the value of the journey. 

This is far more likely to foster growth and a desire to ‘try’ than having everyone in the office trying to live up to the feeling that they should know everything, that making mistakes is a bad thing, and that they’re the only ones who don’t know things because no one else is asking questions. 


Do we have a conscious tolerance and plan for mistakes?

It is a lot easier to make a motivational poster that says “Mistakes are part of learning”, than it is to be faced with someone’s mistake that we have to help fix, while not making them want to crawl under the table for it. 

This obviously needs to be balanced out with performance management and an environment of responsibility and accountability. It’s not a free-for-all situation where you can recklessly perform tasks without concern for the outcome or quality. There is a balance somewhere that needs to be reached. 

Managers and people who’ve been in the company longer will know the areas and tasks that are more likely to be challenging. These should be consciously flagged as ‘growth opportunities’. Perhaps more time can be allocated to the task for newer staff members. A conscious management approach of “I want you to try this yourself and think about it. Come back to me in 3 hours and let’s talk about your impressions, how you’d approach it and what you feel your challenges would be?”. 

This will actively create an environment where the person knows that you EXPECT them to not know how to do it, and they’re required to risk it upfront (As opposed to only ever trying a task AFTER someone has explained it to them). They experience the challenging moment, are required to work through the feeling, while knowing that they will be assisted, and there’s a relatively short deadline on all this uncertainty and incompetence. 

Do you unconsciously create ‘learned helplessness’?

There’s a fascinating experiment on this that explains what this is and how easy it is to create! (https://youtu.be/p6TONVkJ3eI). The experiment in the video is with high school students, and is more focused on social aspects. However, we can easily see how this would apply to the workplace. 

The basic idea is that it doesn’t take much to ‘teach’ people that they’re not able to do something, even if they actually are. We are incredibly susceptible to subtle messages that impact our confidence and sense of ability, and we very often act on these.

One of the lesser-known ways of creating learned helplessness is ALWAYS giving someone explicit instructions before they do any task. This creates the learning that they can’t do anything on their own. They become disempowered. If they are taught implicitly that they always need to be given instructions on how to do something before given the task, they develop the belief that they aren’t able to learn or teach themselves. They will always WAIT for explicit instructions and will be unable to try things themselves. 

This is very often embedded by the schooling system, where teaching is done by giving all the information for a topic upfront, and only AFTER all the information has been given, are they ‘allowed’ or encouraged to attempt questions. This creates the belief that they are unable to be creative, innovative, or come up with anything themselves. It’s far more insidious and subtle than it seems, but this is a powerful tool in growth development. 

Most people will be highly uncomfortable to start with, they won’t WANT to try something on their own, because it’s more comfortable to be given instructions. It’s incredibly valuable to create space in training and organisations to force people to try to figure things out on their own first, and then get assistance and clarity.  


I think the key elements in the Growth Mindset discussion is that our instinctive approach to challenges can impact mindset development. We respond and react and learn how to behave on the basis of the responses we receive as we move through life. 

Thus, we can foster Growth Mindsets by being more aware of these responses and instincts and consider the desired actions as opposed to the instinctive reactions. 

“No one has time to make mistakes” – this is probably way more realistic than a motivational quote of “Mistakes are learning opportunities”. 

If we want a culture of growth, we need to make active space for mistakes. We need to have training in how to deal with them and the people making them, not how to ‘avoid’ them!

Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

Yvonne is a registered CA(SA) and focuses on Mindset and Strategy coaching for students and young professionals working towards their accounting qualifications.

Visit her Accounting Study Advice website here and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Yvonne Starkey CA(SA)

Yvonne is a registered CA(SA) and focuses on Mindset and Strategy coaching for students and young professionals working towards their accounting qualifications.

Visit her Accounting Study Advice website here and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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