Growth Is a Team Sport

Jack Cohen
13 min readDec 7, 2018
Fist bumps are an optional addition.

Grow Out Loud

“In an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for…most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding…The total cost of this waste is simple to state and staggering to contemplate: it prevents organizations, and the people who work in them, from reaching their full potential.”

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

We often work not with our colleagues, but with their defenses. At best, this leaves an organization falling short of its potential; at worst, it creates a half-hearted, unfulfilled, on-edge group of people who call themselves a team while failing to discover their individual and collective purposes or make any meaningful progress toward them.

There is an alternative to playing this exasperating grownup version of hide-and-seek: it is Growth as a Team Sport.

Growth Mindset Environments: Growth Is Evoked

Growth as a Team Sport is a deeply fulfilling, intensely alive, and often uncomfortable adventure, one whose possibility exists in the day-to-day activities of every organization, regardless of the nature of its work. It is founded on the innate drive for learning that exists within every human, and on the belief that ability is not fixed but instead can expand incrementally over time. This belief is called growth mindset.

The popular fervor around growth mindset in recent years, sparked by Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research, has stoked a misconception as powerful as it is misleading: the belief that growth mindset is merely an individual trait. The research investigating the empowering effects of growth mindset on individual learning and performance is impressive (e.g. Elliott & Dweck, 1988; Mueller & Dweck, 1997; Mueller & Dweck, 1998), and as such, teachers seek to build growth mindset and managers to hire for it. None of this is problematic until managers look at people’s mindset through a fixed mindset lens: that is, a person either has growth mindset or they don’t. Furthermore, not only are mindsets developed over time; they can also be evoked in the moment.

What would be possible if your colleagues’ levels of challenge-seeking, persistence, enjoyment, and performance lay in your hands to influence?

The power to leverage this influence lies in the construction of growth mindset environments, the conditions teams can build that evoke the growth mindset qualities above (challenge-seeking, etc). When these conditions are in place, more people use growth mindset, making Growth a Team Sport, an intensely collaborative process in which one team member’s growth efforts advance both the team’s performance goals and the growth of the other team members.

I have seen firsthand both the pitfalls and promises of teachers and managers trying to evoke growth mindset. I taught psychology for five years while also working in a financial institution, and have worked since 2014 as an organizational behavior consultant. I started to see how the principles that made learning and development effective in the classroom could be leveraged for both greater growth and higher performance in the workplace. Drawing on this varied background and the extensive literature on workplace learning, I have identified five key conditions in making Growth a Team Sport:

1. Goal Sharing and Framing

  • How we frame and publicize our goals
  • This happens before growth and sets it in motion.

2. Feedback

  • The feedback we give and get on our progress towards meeting our goals
  • This happens during growth and propels it forward.

3. Safety

  • The level of psychological safety (or lack thereof) of the context in which we work.
  • This must always be happening for people to grow.

4. Acing Failure

  • The philosophy we have regarding potential failures along the way
  • This happens after attempts at growth and maximizes learning.

5. Leader Modeling

  • Leader modeling is not a separate domain; rather, it is included to highlight the inordinate impact of leader behavior in each of the domains above.

In sum: share your goals and get frequent feedback; make it safe for others to do the same, which helps us all take wise risks and learn from mistakes along the way.

Why now?

Why is this so important right now? Why can’t organizations just hire already qualified people to do the work?

In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson offers a helpful framework, which I will call here the Uncertainty Spectrum.

As long as the environments in which you operate are changing, you will need to adapt, regardless of how qualified you are at the start. The faster the environments change, the faster we (or our organizations) must adapt to survive, and the pace of change today is accelerating.

As Edmondson explains, when those changes involve greater complexity and uncertainty, we need to collaborate more effectively to meet them. Complexity means more moving parts to coordinate and more challenging tasks, like in a hospital, and uncertainty refers to a lack of data that make it clear what process causes what outcomes, like in a new startup trying to identify a successful business model. Collaborating amidst complexity and uncertainty differs from collaboration in simpler, more routine environments; these changes mean that each of us will be required to do things we have not done before. If the team is to be successful collectively, everybody must grow individually.

That leaves each team member with a choice between two options, Conceal or Reveal:


● The strategy for Conceal is Pretend and Defend. Pretend that you are perfectly suited for the job, wholly qualified in every required domain, know the answer to every question, and then defend against any data or argument otherwise.


● The strategy for Reveal is share where your gaps are, solicit frequent feedback from others, and make it safe for others both to do the same and to make tolerable mistakes along the way. This strategy is Growth as a Team Sport.

Here is a simple example:

Jane* is a data analyst on an engineering team at a rapidly growing biotech company. Jane realized that her attempts to grit through the challenging tasks she took on in each sprint (the time periods over which the team does its work) were slowing her and the team down, so she initiated a new ritual. At the beginning of each sprint, Jane now identifies the person on her team or in the larger organization who knows the most about the type of work she is doing. Then, she lets them know that she is working in this area and will be in touch to ask some basic questions about the work. The first time she did this, Jane scheduled a 30-minute meeting; the actual meeting only took 2 minutes, and she estimated that it saved her about 12 hours. Now, she just gives that person a heads up and schedules brief, ad-hoc check-ins.

*Some names and identifying details in examples have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Goal Sharing & Framing

tl;dr Revealing our personal development goals liberates us from needing to pretend we are perfect. It also helps our colleagues help us more effectively. In complex and uncertain settings, framing objectives as “discovery” or “learning” goals encourages risk-taking and experimentation — the behaviors necessary for learning.

Revealing discovery or learning goals is the first step to making Growth a Team Sport, and a liberating one at that. In simply conveying to her team and the resident expert that she might need some help, Jane shifts into learning mode, no longer having to Conceal her gaps and waste energy in doing so.

Benefits of Revealing

Several benefits accrue when teams publicize their improvement goals. Colleagues get more help; the help they get is better because their helpers know what help is needed; these dynamics foster trust and connection in both directions. They also give more to others: Jane herself is an expert in several sub-domains within data analytics, and in acknowledging her own gaps and seeking support from others, she realized that she could make more time for those who seek out her expertise (which, research shows, can improve outcomes).

Finally, growth becomes contagious. Imagine you hear one colleague say to another that he is starting to learn a new skill and is wondering if they will help him; then you hear two colleagues talking about how they have started to wake up earlier and exercise together before work — what do you want to start doing? When we see others setting improvement goals and seeking support, we are inspired to do the same — and when those goals are public, we are more likely to follow through.

Goal Framing

Just as important as whether goals are publicized is how goals are framed. Goals at work are typically framed as outcomes to achieve, such as, “Hire 8 new engineers by the end of the quarter.” Psychologists call these “performance” or “outcome” goals, a framing which makes sense for the long-term vision of a team or organization.

When teams work in complex and uncertain environments, success requires change and growth from every team member. In this context, a more helpful framing exists: “learning” or “discovery” goals, such as “Find 3 new drivers that attract engineers, by the end of the quarter.” Here, performance outcomes are still used, but as metrics (the only way you can know what is and isn’t attracting engineers is experimenting and seeing who actually gets accepts hiring offers).

But you care about outcomes! Fear not. Several studies reliably show that in innovation environments characterized by high uncertainty and complexity, discovery goals yield better outcomes than outcome goals — and they have the added benefit of increasing long-term performance. Goal framing matters! (Like SMART goals or OKRs, discovery goals still need to be specific, challenging, and time-bound.)

Why is this the case? Most of us were educated in a routine execution setting, one in which outcome goals increase motivation and, consequently, short-term performance. We see a goal; we know what to do to get there.

How goals are framed impacts people’s behavior — and this impact differs according to the level of uncertainty under which they are acting.

In complex and uncertain settings requiring experimentation, however, outcome goals increase anxiety (“How do they expect me do do that?!”), and, consequently, harm short- and long-term performance. Under the same complex and uncertain conditions, however, discovery goals increase psychological safety, which supports wise risk-taking and experimentation with new strategies. This experimentation leads to discovering more effective strategies, and, consequently, short- and long-term performance. At this point, the amount of uncertainty is reduced, and we can return to using outcome goals again.

Use the degree of uncertainty to inform the way you frame goals.

If you find yourself in a growth environment characterized by high challenge and uncertainty, setting discovery/learning goals and Revealing them to others is the first step to making Growth a Team Sport.


tl;dr “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” (The Talmud)

When we share our goals and grow out loud, shifting from Conceal to Reveal, we jump onto a steeper growth curve.

Sharing goals, though, can be a one-sided game; it is feedback, the cornerstone of learning, that makes everybody into a teammate for growth and success. In this process, after we share our knowledge or skill gaps and our goals to close them, we then take action and search for feedback to close the gaps. I define “feedback” as visibility into your actions and their impacts. This visibility can show the gap between our intended and our actual impact, as well as reveal the knowledge or skill gaps that caused it.

Blind Spots & Mirrors

Rarely are any of us wholly aware of our gaps, especially when entering challenging new territory. Instead of vowing to try harder to see our blind spots and avoid them, it is much more effective to install mirrors. Our teammates are our mirrors — if we accept them as such.

When we craft explicit agreements in our teams to give visibility into the impacts of each other’s actions (i.e. feedback), then our teammates will act as mirrors, helping us see our actions and impacts in the moment they occur, which research shows is the very moment in which we have the greatest ability to change and grow. While not every mirror gives an accurate reflection every time, we get a clearer sense of ourselves from many mirrors over time. This visibility enables us to assess alignment between our goals/values/intentions and our actual impacts — and then adjust as needed.

Feedback Norms that Keep Us Blind

Feedback norms play a crucial role in determining whether we have a Conceal culture of pretending and defending, or a Reveal culture where Growth is a Team Sport.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, the norm is for people to withhold feedback from their teammates, thus Concealing their impact, and thereby handicapping everybody’s ability to grow. Wouldn’t want to say anything that’s not “nice,” would we?!

I couldn’t possibly give you feedback to your face!

For example, Dave, a project manager I coached, spoke about a colleague who talked incessantly at meetings. During an expansion phase that involved some role reshuffling, Dave removed the colleague from a recurring meeting invitation. He chose not to give the colleague direct feedback, explaining, “I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. Plus, I don’t have any authority over him, so I didn’t think it was my place to give him feedback. I thought, maybe I would tell my manager, who could speak to his manager, who could tell him.” That didn’t happen. What we are not aware of, we cannot improve.

Limiting our feedback source to a single person (e.g. a manager) is a common and surefire recipe to stall growth. As a result of this unwillingness to give direct feedback, research shows that the higher leaders go in hierarchies, the less self-aware they are, with one study showing that, “relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills (compared with others’ perceptions)…in 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured.” But does that really surprise you? It is the predictable result of Concealing feedback and limiting it to the stilted, contrived annual performance review conversation. We must change our norms to increase the frequency and flow in all directions!

What if — stay with me here — what if we could give each other feedback directly? What if that were the norm? If we even expected it of each other?

Changing the Norms with Actionable Feedback

People often hesitate to reveal critical feedback because they don’t know how to do so skillfully, i.e. in ways that minimize defensiveness and catalyze improvement. You would love to approach your colleague and tell him straight up, “You are lazy and you clearly don’t care about the team!” but naturally fear the repercussions.

Instead, you might try, “You came late to the last 3 planning meetings [action]. That meant that we repeated some stuff for you and had less time left for planning [impact], which left me pretty disappointed.”

Feedback is effective when it is actionable, and in order for it to be actionable, we must share observations of actions and their impacts, not judgments of people.

For difficult feedback conversations, consider the template above to structure the conversation clearly and make it mutual.

The research of Carol Dweck and colleagues shows that the type of feedback given is what reliably evokes growth versus fixed mindset. Being lazy — true or not — is not something I can readily change; coming on time is a growth area I can address immediately.

Actionable feedback is crucial in situations of praise as well as critique. Instead of, “Your presentation was amazing; you’re a genius!” You could try, “The data visualization at the beginning clarified everything for me; I can see how your efforts on developing that skill are paying off.” Sharing positive impacts is deeply motivating (and free): One study showed a 406% increase in weekly revenue after fundraisers had a 5-minute conversation with the beneficiary of their fundraising. 406% from 5 minutes!

Sharing judgments is dangerous, even sharing favorable ones! While critical judgments trigger people into defensiveness, favorable ones create people-pleasing. How? Since people can’t control my judgments, they try to please me to influence my judgments of them. By contrast, sharing actionable feedback is empowering because it points to the actions people can take themselves to create the impacts they seek. By focusing on what’s within their control, actionable feedback helps people shift to prioritizing impact instead of protecting image. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella frames this as shifting from a culture of know-it-alls to one of learn-it-alls. In short, actionable feedback evokes growth mindset, and judgmental feedback evokes fixed mindset.

It is a lost opportunity for individual AND team growth when we withhold critical feedback; as Dave saw, many people welcome this feedback when it tells them clearly where they are and how to get from there to where they want to be — i.e. when it’s actionable.

This could change everything.

Ultimately, Dave stepped into the discomfort of broaching the topic with his colleague. At first, Dave reported, “He felt hurt — not about the feedback, but that nobody was telling him their concerns. And then he thanked me. He said he wished people had just told him, and he encouraged me to approach him with more feedback in the future. I felt like the conversation brought us closer.”

As Dave’s conversation illustrates, when we give critical feedback skillfully, it not only supports growth, but it can also build a sense of deeper trust and connection.

See here for Part II on Psychological Safety, Acing Failure, and Leader Modeling.

This framework itself is, without a doubt, still a work in progress. I invite your comments below about what resonates, what parts of the framework you want to challenge or refine, and whatever else has sparked as you have been reading.



Jack Cohen

Voracious learner applying evidence-based insights to help values-driven workplaces. Founder, Brain-Based Workplace, LLC.