Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Changing the Nature of Work

After researching Carol Dweck’s work on entity versus incremental learning postures, you realize that a company-wide change could help productivity. The problem with people believing their intelligence and gifts are totally genetic (entity) means they give up easily if something is difficult (i.e., “I’m just not good at such-and-such.”). This is not what you need for effective, long-term, emotionally healthy employees. The problem is that to get people to adopt an incremental learning style is to teach them to accept failure. In American business culture, failure is swept under the rug, never to be talked about. But, to get your organization to see learning as a progression of hard work rather than something you’re born with will take a great effort. No one wants to admit failure. Still, the research supports this new attitude in spades, pointing out that motivation increases and people don’t beat themselves up any longer when they face setbacks (Aronson and Tavris, 2007).

Carol Dweck's research on entity and incremental learning styles would have a very thin chance of being adopted wholeheartedly in American culture if presented directly. We are too focused on sidestepping failure to ever attempt such a risky path as admitting our mistakes. For one thing, if everyone had not bought in to this new belief they could easily manipulate the system for their own good. For incremental learning and truly learning from our mistakes to work, everyone has to play.

If a small or medium-sized company tried out this learning posture and it worked, it would undoubtedly be a hit. Small and medium-sized companies are nimble enough to orchestrate the intricacies of a complex culture change. Imagine being in a place where you were allowed to admit your faults and as long as you corrected them, move forward without much hassle. That would coincide well with the literature and research proposed by Karl Weick (1984) on small wins.

To be proper though, for this style of organizational culture to be adopted properly, it would have to be an organization-wide effort. It would not work if this were just one department admitting their mistakes. The next guys over would likely cover up theirs and make the small minority of folks on the other side look really bad. But if this initiative came from the top and passed directly from the mouths of executives themselves, also admitting their own mistakes, this would free the entire organization.


Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. New York: Harcourt Inc.

Koppes et al. (2007). Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.


  1. This has been my experience. As I have instigated a variety of change initiatives in organizations, one of the differences between the sustenance or demise of the effort has been a willingness (or lack thereof) of all members of the organization to admit their fallibility and resolve to collaboratively work to find a better path to success. My research question, therefore, is: "What could be the true potential of an organization if everybody could just check their egos in at the door?"

  2. I love that question, Mark! I wonder as well...

  3. "You can make any mistake once and when you do, tell everyone" - DHL International's motto, per Mr. Po Chung, Founder and former Chairman/CEO.

  4. Ted, that's perfect. I'm posting that in my Facebook quotes.