Is it Smart to Select the Smartest?Kathleen graduated as top student in law. Throughout her school years she was always a top student and was continually praised for her ability and intelligence. She graduated in law with honors. Kathleen believes she was born with a high IQ.

The ABC law firm, a top tier firm who recently merged with one of UK’s Magic Circle law firms, selected her as soon as she graduated.

Julie is a solid performer who works hard, and throughout school was praised for her hard work and effort, more than for her intelligence. Her school history and work history is one of working hard, through effort, rather than being naturally a top student. She didn’t make it to the ABC firm short list and was offered an internship at a second tier law firm.

Which of these individuals are more valuable to their firm? Did you suppose it was the smartest? Well, read on.

The Myth About Ability and Achievement

  • Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?
  • That Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, was completely uncoordinated and graceless as a child?
  • That photographer Cindy Sherman, who has been on virtually every list of the most important artists of the twentieth century failed her first photography course?
  • That Mozart laboured for more than ten years until he produced any work that we admire today?
  • Experts agree that Jackson Pollock had little native talent for art, yet he became one of the greatest American painters of the twentieth century and revolutionised modern art [1].Perhaps there is more to people’s talent than first meets the eye.

What’s Better – Being Intelligent or Working Hard?

Carol Dweck a psychologist at Stanford, conducted studies with over 400 year 5 students. Her research team gave each student a set of problems, which they did pretty well on, and then praised them. One group was praised for their ability and intelligence: “you must be very smart at this”. Other students were praised for their effort: “you must have worked really hard”.

Both groups were exactly equal to begin with. However right after the praise they began to differ. Those students praised for their ability rejected challenging new tasks that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws or call into question their talent. They didn’t want to “look stupid”. They saw mistakes as a sign of personal failure, or stupidity, were easily discouraged, lost interest in the difficult problems. This group performed 20% more poorly on subsequent tasks after they encountered failure.

The children in the effort group, however, chose more difficult tests and worked harder at figuring out puzzles. They were prepared to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first. They wanted to understand their mistakes, learn from errors and figure out how to do better. They enjoyed the challenge and performed 30% better on subsequent tasks after experiencing failure.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that when both groups of students were asked to write down the scores they received on the problems, almost 40% of the ability-praised students lied about their scores by overstating them.[2]

Mindsets Matter

Carol Dweck demonstrated that mindset is what matters, more than ability, intelligence or IQ levels. She defines two types of mindsets:

Fixed mindsets – describes people who believe ability, talent and potential is fixed, you have a certain amount of intelligence and you can’t really change it.

Growth mindsets – describes people who believe you can substantially change how intelligent you are.

It would be interesting to apply this mindset to the corporate world.

Fixed mindset managers may be inclined to:

  • Believe effort is a bad thing. It means you’re not talented or smart because if you were, you wouldn’t need effort.
  • Label people as winners or losers then treat them accordingly, despite any evidence to the contrary.
  • Discourage open and productive discussions and punish dissent. Individuals become anxious about disapproval for their ideas, so open, productive discussion is suppressed, often leading to groupthink, when everyone starts thinking alike.

Growth mindset managers, however, may:

  • Foster a team where honest opinions and open expression of disagreements are encouraged and critical thinking is fostered.
  • Create an environment where problems are surfaced, calculated risks are encouraged and support is provided to learn from mistakes.
  • Foster a climate where people work together to improve their decisions.

Dweck also found that teams headed by fixed mindset managers are ultimately more productive.[3]

Alfred P. Sloan, former CEO of General Motors quipped at the end of a meeting that seemed to have reached a consensus: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here…then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

A Changed HR Paradigm

How would we design HR systems if we worked in a firm with growth mindset and culture?

Rather than automatically selecting the smartest graduates for recruitment, we might probe further with insightful interview questions to identify their mindset. These questions might include: “ When did you struggle through and learned something new?” “When did you experience a setback or made a mistake and how did you handle this situation?” Perhaps these firms might make room for graduates who may have failed a subject or left for a time and then come back to study with more tenacity and wisdom.

Perhaps we would either scrap or redefine participation in a high potential program? Rather than shielding our high potential employees from mistakes by giving them relatively safe projects, we could expose them to projects with a higher risk of failure and assess how they cope and learn from the experience.  It is just possible that they may develop greater management depth and insight.

What would performance feedback look like in a growth mindset organisation? Perhaps instead of only rewarding smart ideas or performance, it could also include praise for taking the initiative, struggling through a difficult task, learning something new or being open to criticism!

How about learning and development? Exposing individuals to opportunities where risks and mistakes are welcomed as opportunities to learn may create a whole new learning culture.

The challenges are seemingly endless. What is certain is that systems and processes are based on underlying assumptions about people and motivation. These assumptions will undoubtedly reinforce a  particular culture. Make sure it’s the right culture.

[1]Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2006, p. 7, 56 & 70.
[2]Dweck, pp. 71 – 73
[3]Dweck, p. 134