As a corporate trainer and executive coach, I spend a large percentage of my working hours in conversation with business leaders and their employees, mostly in China.
About 18 months ago, I began to notice a tendency that many of my clients had when speaking about their colleagues and subordinates and their levels of ability and intelligence. In the span of only a few weeks, I saw this tendency in discussion with three separate executives, each working for a different company, each based in Beijing, and each one I respect greatly.
“[Employee X] is a good person, but she’s not smart, so I’m putting her on a different team,” said one. “I would rather not have [Employee Y] work for me, he isn’t very smart,” said another. “I would definitely prefer to have ‘smart’ people working for me than ‘good’ people,” said a third.
In each of these instances, I followed up by asking them to clarify what exactly they meant by “smart”. In each case, the executive responded with a vague, unspecific answer, saying something along the lines of “well, you know, just smart. You can tell when a person is or isn’t smart.”
Each of these people, while they had trouble articulating what exactly it meant to be smart, claimed to be able to identify it when they saw it, or when they saw a lack of it.
After noticing this trend with those three executives, I began spotting it with many of my colleagues and clients in Beijing, and is something I have watched for ever since: a tendency to describe an individual’s intelligence in a binary way (either “smart” or “not smart”), or hierarchically (person X is smarter than person Y, who is smarter than person Z). In many instances, this level of intelligence, I’ve noticed, is viewed as something that is fixed, not fluid or changeable.
What is concerning to me is not that I hear people speaking like this, but who I hear speaking like this. Many of them are HR professionals and managers at technology companies, who are responsible for facilitating and enabling teams and cultures of innovation and collaboration.
This is concerning to me because that way of speaking is indicative of certain mindsets that, according to volumes of research in the field of organizational psychology, greatly hinder the development of innovative and collaborative environments these professionals are tasked with creating. By thinking this way, these people are shooting themselves in the foot.
This way of thinking is certainly not exclusive to China, but it does seem that there are some aspects of Chinese society that foster it. The heavily test-focused education system encourages children to, from a young age, compare their skills and intelligence hierarchically with their peers along a single dimension, which will then greatly determine their future success. Parents and students obsess over the rank of their universities, and after they graduate, the status of the companies they join.
This is not an entirely harmful approach. A testing-based evaluation system ensures a degree of meritocratic advancement in education, and top universities and companies are usually ranked that way for a reason.
However, like with anything in life, an imbalanced overemphasis can lead to unproductive and unhelpful outcomes. For managers and HR professionals, it can be helpful to question and evolve one’s assumptions on talent based on what social science research is showing.
To better understand how this way of thinking can affect a person’s career, team, and organization, it is helpful to look at two different areas of mindset research: The abundance mindset vs the scarcity mindset, and the growth mindset vs the fixed mindset.
The ladder and the spider web: the abundance and scarcity mindsets
Many people are taught to believe that intelligence and ability are organized like a ladder; a hierarchical ranking of brightest to dullest, of able to incompetent. In reality, it isn’t like this at all. In fact, intelligence is far more like a spider web; a complex, multi-dimensional set of interconnecting knowledge, abilities, and thought processes, with each individual in a unique position, in some areas superior, and in others inferior to others.
Take for example the character of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, the brilliant theoretical physicist who is absolutely inept socially and emotionally. While maybe our traits are less pronounced, most of us are like Sheldon in one way or another, with lopsided skills and knowledge.
Those of us who succeed are the ones who can find niches in this world where our strengths are valued and weaknesses overlooked. As a quote famously attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Despite this fact, it doesn’t seem to impact how many companies recruit talent, particularly in China. Ascribing to the hierarchical “ladder” view of talent and ability, many companies will look to bring on executives with the “best” educational and professional experience, from the highest-ranked universities, with the highest-level experience and the highest-ranked firms, usually with a high price tag.
When that executive fails for whatever reason, what is the conclusion from senior management and HR? That the next candidate must be from an even higher-ranked university, with even higher-level experience at an even higher-ranked firm… with an even higher price tag.
Companies keep looking for better people, when usually what they really need are more suitable people. It has been said that doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. If that’s true, what can be said about the recruitment criteria and processes of many organizations?
What is perhaps even more toxic is the effect that the “ladder” view has on a person’s image of themselves and those around them, and how that impacts teamwork, innovation, flexibility, and corporate culture. If everything is a hierarchical rank, it makes sense to want to climb that ladder. If you are ranked 5th, your goal will then be to advance to 4th.
However, this way of thinking doesn’t make any distinction how you get from 5th to 4th. Whether you succeed more or simply fail less than your peers, it doesn’t matter, so long as your standing improves relative to theirs.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this is what Stephen Covey calls a “scarcity mindset”. It is a zero-sum view of the world and of success, which sees life’s resources as limited, as a fixed pie, where the more others get, the less you get, and vice versa.
This causes individuals to hoard resources, use information as a weapon, and claim credit for as much as possible, even if unjustly so. In other words, this way of thinking causes someone to be a shitty team player and cripples an organization’s ability to collaborate and innovate.
I can understand why many people, especially in China, would have scarcity mindsets. After all, when you live in a country of 1.3 billion people, it is very hard to have enough resources to go around. However, when that way of thinking is brought to the workplace, it is downright poisonous to team success.
The “spider web” view, in contrast, sees each person’s skills and abilities as unique, and therefore instead of trying to fight for a higher rung of the ladder, spider-web thinkers are focused on trying to find the most suitable use of their skills: the harmony of what they are good at, what they love doing, and what the world and economy require.
Since the spider-web thinker is focused on their individual purpose in life, they are focused less on competing with others. After all, why would you want to have someone else’s success, when you want one based on your own individual sense of purpose?
This way of thinking is conducive to developing what Covey calls an “abundance mindset”, a positive-sum view of the world and of success, which sees life’s resources as a pie that can grow through collaboration, providing larger slices for everyone involved. This causes individuals to share resources, information, and credit. It creates better teams and fosters innovation and collaboration.
So how can companies recruit for the spider web rather than the ladder? One way is to clearly define what individual competencies they’re looking for, particularly when it comes to EQ. Since these traits are often much harder to quantify than technical skills, it is important to get specific about what they are.
At Google, these traits are referred to as “Googleyness”, which chairman and head of hiring Lazlo Bock explains this way:
“Attributes like enjoying fun (who doesn’t?), a certain dose of intellectual humility (it’s hard to learn if you can’t admit that you might be wrong), a strong measure of conscientiousness (we want owners, not employees), comfort with ambiguity (we don’t know how our business will evolve, and navigating Google internally requires dealing with a lot of ambiguity), and evidence that you’ve taken some courageous or interesting paths in your life.”
Google also focuses on a trait called “Emergent Leadership”, which Bock explains this way:
“So it’s not were you captain of a football team, were you promoted to vice president quickly? It’s when you see a problem, do you step in to help fix it and, just as importantly, do you relinquish power and let go of it?”
In recruiting for “Googleyness”, Google is looking at things through the spider-web view of intelligence and ability, identifying that they don’t simply want smart people, they want the right kind of smart.
Surprisingly, Google has found that it has very little to do with the rank of a person’s university, and they often recruit from smaller, lesser-known, and state schools. “What we find is the best people from places like that are just as good if not better as anybody you can get from any Ivy League school,” says Bock in his book Work Rules.
Once Google determines that a candidate possesses these traits (as well as a strong general cognitive ability), the issue becomes less about if the person fits at Google, but where and how they can best put their skills to their best use.
While it would be naïve to think that the spider-web view eliminates infighting, competition, and internal politics, it is clear that, when utilized correctly, it creates stronger, more cohesive teams, higher performance, and more enjoyable workplaces.
The fixed mindset vs the growth mindset
What’s just as important as how we think about the diversity and individuality of intelligences is how we think of their fluidity and flexibility. In her groundbreaking research laid out in the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck categorizes this into two mentalities, the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”.
For those who hold the fixed mindset, intelligence is a stable quantity in an individual. Because they hold this idea in their heads, they spend much of their lives and careers feeling the need to “look smart” to themselves and others, to consistently reinforce the idea that they are able and intelligent. This can lead to an avoidance of challenges so as not to have to face failure and embarrassment, to see effort as fruitless, to ignore useful feedback, and to be threatened by the success of others.
The growth mindset, on the other hand, views intelligence as something that can be developed through time and effort. Because of this, learning is far more important than looking smart. This emphasis on learning leads growth-mindset individuals to embrace challenges as an opportunity to learn, see effort as the path to mastery, to accept feedback well, and to view the success of others not as a threat, but as an inspiration.
This is an empowering way of looking at the world, one that prompts the individual to ask themselves: “What can I do to improve myself and my situation?”
For many executives who I’ve worked with, they have achieved their success through the determination and persistence that comes from a growth mindset. However, I do notice that, at least here in China, it sometimes tends to be a private thing, and many leaders often shy away from displaying their challenges, efforts, failures, and personal lessons with their team and organizations, instead opting to display an image of infallibility.
Personally, I have trouble understanding this approach, as I believe a growth mindset is one of greatest gifts a leader can give their followers, inspiring those under them to adopt that approach as well.
Want to instill abundance and growth mindsets at your workplace? Here are some concrete steps you can take today:
• Stop referring to people as “smart” or “not smart”. Instead, focus on people’s specific individual competencies. Sometimes those competencies fit well with the position that they’re in. Sometimes they aren’t. But it doesn’t mean they are or are not “smart”.
• Identify your company’s most important EQ competencies, and recruit for them. Identifying EQ competencies while recruiting and interviewing is quite challenging, but definitely not impossible. It also is crucial, as studies show it determines anywhere from 24 to 69 percent of job success. In her Harvard Business Review article How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence, University of Pennsylvania senior fellow Annie McKee recommends that EQ competencies can be best determined through an interview approach called Behavioral Event Interviewing.
• Use psychometric testing to identify trends of successful people in your organization. When hiring, many companies require candidates to take a psychometric test, one of the most popular being the Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ). While these can be unreliable or counterproductive if used poorly, they can also offer powerful insights. One way to use them is to, over the course of a few years and with a statistically significant sample size, compare the test results of those who were hired and not hired, fired or let go, high performers, poor performers, and those who were promoted. You will probably find one or two key traits that are highly indicative of future success in your organization. In Google’s case, they found that high-conscientiousness was that trait, and now look for that trait in all candidates.
• Be open about your faults with your team, but also be open about your passion to improve. To foster a growth mindset on your team, show that you aren’t afraid to ask for help, admit you were wrong, or look stupid sometimes. This not only encourages others to do the same and helps build a culture of learning, it also displays self-confidence, and in my opinion, makes a leader far more inspiring.
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