Grow brains to grow business

ROSE PATTERSON
Last updated 11:03 08/04/2014

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OPINION: If we want to grow our businesses, whether by market share, profit, or offering customers better value, we need to grow our people - and growing people means growing big brains.

Management guru Tom Peters, speaking at the New Zealand Initiative's annual retreat dinner recently, gave a resounding and impassioned speech on the importance to business of investing in people, first and foremost.

Business leaders can invest in people by helping them to realise their own potential. Psychology and neuropsychology research shows that one's attitude to their own learning, development and growth is critically important, both in childhood and adulthood.

Unfortunately, personality and motivation psychology can be fraught with complexity. The Myers Briggs test, for example, dichotomises people into one of two types on four personality dimensions, ultimately boxing them into one of 16 personalities. Good luck using that to understand a class of children or your direct reports, and good luck using it in any meaningful way.

Yet, there are some simpler typologies that are more useful predictors of success and perhaps more useful for teachers to help their students learn and develop, and for managers to help develop staff capacity.

According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two types of people in this world: those who grow and those who don't. Luckily, it's relatively easy to switch to growth.  

The former are people with a "growth mindset", and the latter have a "fixed mindset". Of course, the continuum is more nuanced, but it turns out that this typology is predictive of learning and success in life. The essential difference between the two is one's underlying belief system: do you believe that intelligence is fixed and static, or that your mind and your intelligence can be developed?

Of course, people start off with different tendencies, talents, and temperaments, but ultimately it takes practice and hard work to cultivate excellence. Realising this is the first critical step.

So how does it work? When those with a fixed mindset fail, they attribute that failure to something inherent about themselves. The fear of failure makes these people less likely to try, and therefore less likely to learn and grow. Those with a growth mindset don't consider so-called failure to mean they have failed as a person; rather, they see it as an opportunity to learn from experience.

The good news is that it is possible to teach the power of the growth mindset, as Dweck and her colleagues found out when they taught teenagers about the ability of the brain to grow.

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The researchers randomly split classes of students into an experimental group and a control group. Kids in the control group were given sessions on study skills. The experimental group were given a seminar on how learning changes the structure of the brain by establishing new connections between brain cells and making connections stronger.  

Brain imaging studies show that the areas of the brain responsible for different types of skills become larger, denser, and more active when people learn and practice those skills. We are, quite literally, talking about growing big brains.  

Teachers were unaware of which group students were in. However, 27 per cent of students who were taught about the ability of the mind to grow were reported by their teachers as being more motivated than before, compared to 9 per cent of those in the control group. And this effort and motivation translated into improved performance.

Those who learned about the growth mindset started doing better in maths relative to the control group. Simply knowing how your brain works can help you learn.

The OECD's Pisa 2012 study of 15-year-olds' abilities in reading, maths and science found that in New Zealand, students who agreed they could succeed in maths if they put in enough effort scored 33 points higher than those who did not agree. That's nearly a year's difference in schooling.

We often talk about how teachers are the most important in-school factor for student achievement. Equally, in the workplace, one's manager is probably the most important influence on professional development.

But actually most of all it comes down to the individual themselves and their own attitude to learning and improving. In education, the factor that explains the most variance in student achievement is the student themselves. I'd hazard a guess it's the same in the workplace.  

Teachers and managers still have a job to do: help students and staff believe in themselves. Everybody has the capacity to grow big brains and realise their potential.  

*Rose Patterson is a research fellow at The New Zealand Initiative. 

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