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Are the Beliefs of Female Leaders Undermining Their Success?

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When it comes to your talents and abilities do you believe these are largely fixed traits or can enough practice, effort and mentoring make it possible to learn almost anything? Your answer to this question could be what's shaping your success.

"Our research has found the beliefs we hold about ourselves are tremendously powering in determining our success," explained Professor Carol Dweck from Standford University when we recorded this podcast about practical strategies to help women thrive at work.

"Some people believe you have a certain amount of talents and ability and that's it - we call this a fixed mindset -- and it makes us afraid to take on challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks or criticism," she said.

"Other people have the view their talents and abilities can be developed through their hard work, their good strategies, good mentoring -- a growth mindset -- and these are the people who have the confidence to take on challenges and be undaunted by setbacks and negative feedback," Dweck explains.

For example, in threatening environments where women are often negatively stereotyped -- such as a computer science course -- Dweck's studies have found women in a growth mindset are able to thrive because they accept struggling is just part of learning process.

"If you're in a growth mindset and find yourself struggling at something new what's the worst thing people will discover about you? That you're learning. Welcome to the human race," said Dweck. "Whereas when you're in a fixed mindset and find yourself struggling you fear people will discover you're not as good as they thought."

While Dweck suggests these mindsets are not determined by gender, the general lack of confidence found in many women means a fixed mindset makes us particularly fragile when it comes to dealing with failure, setbacks and criticism.

Generally they are shaped by receiving too much praise from parents and teachers around our talents and abilities, rather than efforts , but the good news is Dweck's studies have found there are three things we can do to change our mindsets:

  • Tune into the stories you tell. For a week or two just listen to what you hear in your head. For example, when you're thinking about taking on a new challenge, is that voice telling you: "Better not go there you could fail and reveal your flaws." Or when you make a mistake is that voice telling you that you're stupid or something even worse. If someone gives you helpful feedback do you take as criticism, or if they give you negative feedback do you take it as self-defining. If you see someone who's better at something than you, do you feel threatened and think: "I could never do that."
  • Talk to yourself in a growth mindset. Think about what you could learn by taking on that challenge, even if you don't pull it off. When you make a mistake, accept that you're learning and this is just part of the process. Reinterpret criticism as someone who wants to help you learn and ask them for more guidance or mentoring. If you see someone who is doing better than you, ask them how they pulled it off and see if you can learn from them.
  • Choose the growth mindset action. Realize you have a choice when it comes to the stories you invest in and this impacts the way you feel and how you're willing to act. As you move forward and potentially face setbacks, know that's okay to still have that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, but then take the to figure out what happened, think about what to do next and ask other people to help you formulate the next steps.

"Taking these actions impacts the level of stress and anxiety people are feeling at work," reported Dweck. "Rather than feeling humiliated or undermined by every set back, these challenges energize us when we believe they are a natural part of the learning process."

Just think of Thomas Edison's lengthy journey to invent the light bulb and his infamous observation: "I didn't fail, I just found 10,000 ways it didn't work."

You can test your mindset online at www.mindsetonline.com.

This article first appeared in womensagenda.com.au.