Growth Is a Team Sport

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: 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 and growth becomes 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 commercial lending. 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 background, the extensive literature on workplace learning, and my current work as an organizational behavior consultant, 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 them
  • This happens during growth and propels it forward.

3. Acing Failure

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

4. 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.

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.

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.

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 tertiary care 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.

As Multipliers author Liz Wiseman says, “If you are leading in a growth environment, every day you are unprepared for your job.” That leaves each team member with a choice between two options, conceal or reveal:

Conceal

  • 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 defend against any data or argument otherwise.

Reveal

  • The strategy for Reveal is share where your gaps are, solicit frequent feedback from others, and make it safe for others to do the same while learning from 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 intervals over which the team does its work) were a suboptimal way of going about things, so she initiated a new ritual. At the beginning of each sprint, Jane 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; it only took 2 minutes, and she estimated that it saved her about 12 hours. Now, she just gives that 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

Publicizing what we are working on improving is the first step to growing out loud. 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 cover up her gaps and waste energy in doing so.

What do colleagues stand to gain when they share their goals with each other? Several benefits accrue, and quickly too. They get more help; the help they get is better because people know how to help; they often get resources or referrals to the experts in their domain that they wouldn’t otherwise know; and they foster trust and connection in both directions. They also develop greater empathy for 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 a little more time for those who seek out her expertise.

Research confirms that this is more than just a feel-good moment; it can help the helper too. After analyzing almost a decade’s worth of data from 52 hospitals for their article, “Goal Relatedness and Learning,” University of Texas management professor Jonathan Clark and colleagues discovered that surgeons who spent more time teaching also had better patient outcomes than those who focused solely on surgery.

Sharing goals publicly can have two added benefits: first, there is a ripple effect where growth becomes contagious. When people hear their colleagues focused on making improvements, they are often inspired to do the same. Second, because most people like to maintain a sense of integrity, when people announce their goals publicly, they generally feel a healthy increase in pressure to follow through with them.

There is an important distinction to be made here between two ways to frame goals. Goals at work are often framed as outcomes to achieve, such as, “Hire eight new engineers by the end of the quarter.” Psychologists call these “performance” or “outcome” goals. Indeed, the overall vision of a team or organization is (and ought to be) communicated as an aspirational outcome, one that challenges team members to stretch their current capacity in order to achieve it.

When teams work on such new and challenging projects, it requires change and growth from every team member. In the context of growth, another framing exists: “learning” goals. In this domain, while performance outcomes are still used as metrics, these metrics now serve as guideposts to increase capacity over time. Learning goals are generally more about what I am doing and how I am doing it than about what gets done.

In my experience, colleagues are sometimes aware of each other’s performance goals but almost never aware of each other’s learning goals. This is another form of concealing. Having performance goals is standard and generally interpreted as a sign of ambition, whereas having learning goals requires an acknowledgment of a person’s gaps, which can be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Ambitious leaders and managers often tense when they hear that performance outcomes might be placed as secondary to learning. “Yeah, yeah, learning’s important, it’s nice,” they say, “but we have a bottom line to consider.” Ironically, several studies reliably show that in innovation environments characterized by high uncertainty and complexity, learning goals yield better outcomes than outcome goals — and they have the added benefit of increasing long-term performance. Goal framing matters!

Why is this the case? In routine execution settings, outcome goals increase motivation and, consequently, short-term performance.

In complex and uncertain settings requiring experimentation, however, outcome goals increase anxiety, and, consequently, harm short- and long-term performance. Under the same conditions, learning goals increase psychological safety and learning, and, consequently, short- and long-term performance.

Like SMART goals or OKRs, learning goals are most effective when specific, challenging, and time-bound. In spite of the research to the contrary, a common misconception abounds: learning goals do NOT preclude achieving or making progress toward outcomes; they aren’t just studying.

Learning happens in two modes:

Learning before doing, as in researching past examples, speaking with people experienced in related domains, etc. This will help you make new mistakes.

  • This mode will accelerate progress when you get to the doing, but not while you are in it.

Learning through doing, such as running experiments, A/B tests, and many other methods in design thinking etc, helping you learn what is learnable only through trying.

  • This mode will accelerate progress while you are in it. It help you search more effectively for strategies than will outcome goals, and enhance your self-efficacy in the process.

Here are several examples of outcome goals reframed as learning goals.

If you find yourself in a growth environment characterized by high challenge and uncertainty, setting learning goals and sharing them with others is the first step to growth as a team sport.

Feedback

When you share your goals and grow out loud, you jump onto a steeper growth curve. The reflex to manage impressions does not disappear entirely, though; rather, you harness it. Instead of aiming to be seen merely as an expert, you can aim to become known as an expert learner. Thus, instead of managing impressions by concealing your gaps, you can now manage impressions by revealing them. This also demonstrates your self-awareness and willingness to learn, which go a long way to increasing your colleagues’ patience and support as you do so.

Sharing, though, can be a one-sided game; it is feedback, the linchpin of learning, that makes everybody into your teammate for growth and success. When you share your gaps and the learning goals to close them, you then search for feedback to help you do so. Here, I define feedback as visibility into your actions and their impacts; getting frequent, high-quality feedback supports a sense of progress toward your goals, what Harvard professor Teresa Amabile identifies as the greatest motivator. It also helps you identify your gaps in the first place.

Blind Spots & Mirrors

Rarely are any of us wholly aware of our gaps, especially when entering challenging new territory. Many well-meaning individuals vow to try harder to see their blind spots and avoid them. Instead of drumming up more effort, it is much more effective to install mirrors. In this sense, your teammates can serve as your mirrors.

When you craft explicit agreements with each other about giving visibility into the impacts of each other’s actions (i.e. feedback), then your teammates will act as mirrors, helping you see your actions and impacts in the moment they occur, the very moment in which you have the greatest ability to change (Anders Ericsson, the researcher behind the 10,000-hours-of-practice notion, cites the immediacy of feedback as crucial in the development of mastery). While not every mirror gives an accurate reflection every time, you get a clearer sense of yourself from many mirrors over time. This visibility enables you to assess alignment with your goals and values and adjust as needed.

Unfortunately, in most organizations people regularly withhold feedback from their teammates, thus handicapping their teammates’ ability to grow and, in turn, their own. Dave, a project manager I coached, spoke about a research scientist who talked incessantly at meetings. During an expansion phase that involved some role reshuffling, Dave took the scientist off a recurring meeting invitation. He chose not to give the scientist direct feedback explaining the reason. Dave explained, “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.” Withholding feedback prevails again; what we are not aware of, we cannot improve.

When I was in college and wanted to become fluent in Spanish, I immersed myself in a Spanish-speaking country, living with a Spanish-speaking family and attending a Spanish-speaking university; almost every moment of every day offered me a growth opportunity. Further still, I often asked my Costa Rican classmates and friends to correct my Spanish, creating a feedback-rich environment. As the Talmudic saying goes, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.”

Immersive growth environments explain why one person who barely speaks a language can achieve conversational proficiency after just a few months, whereas another person can spend 12 years in school learning from one teacher at a time and forget everything shortly thereafter. Especially when we make explicit agreements to support each other’s growth, as I did with my classmates and Jane does with her team members, growth becomes a team sport, and we get to immerse ourselves in it.

Imagine an alternative — I make an obvious mistake, using the wrong word or phrase, and a classmate points it out and corrects me. What if I said, “You’re not my Spanish teacher. Who are you to correct me? Only my Spanish teacher has the authority to correct me.” Instead of availing myself of a whole country of teachers and support, I would be limiting myself to one person, hardly a recipe for growth.

This was Dave’s situation and is common across organizations that depend on feedback cascading down the hierarchy. As a result of this unwillingness, research shows that the higher leaders go in hierarchies, the less self-aware they are.

Research, along with my own experience, suggests that one of the most common reasons people avoid giving difficult feedback is that they don’t know how to do it well. The reflex, sharing the judgmental criticism that pops into their heads, is unappealing, so they avoid it altogether.

Instead, 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. The research of Carol Dweck and colleagues, who discovered growth and fixed mindsets, shows that the type of feedback we give — observations of effort and its impact versus judgments of people — is what reliably evokes growth versus fixed mindset.

This is true 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.” Instead of, “you prioritize yourself over the team,” a manager could say, “You came late to the last 3 sprints. That meant that we repeated some stuff for you and had less time left for planning.” It is a lost opportunity when we withhold critical feedback; as Dave saw, many people welcome it when it tells them clearly where they are and how to get from there to where they want to be.

Ultimately, with some coaching on how to approach the conversation, Dave stepped into the discomfort of broaching the topic with the scientist. 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 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.