The beliefs we hold about the nature of intelligence influences the type of goals we set for ourselves and our behaviours. Carol Dweck and her fellow researchers have been exploring implicit theories of intelligence for over thirty years. What they have found is fascinating. People hold one of two views about intelligence – either they believe that intelligence is a “fixed quantity that cannot be changed very much by effort and learning, whereas people who hold an incremental theory believe that intelligence is malleable and expandable” (Murphy & Dweck, 2006, 284). People who hold the fixed view of intelligence tend to select performance goals to demonstrate ability. When faced with difficult challenges, fixed theorists question their abilities, exert less effort and become defensive. Those who believe that intelligence can be developed set learning goals, and when faced with challenge persist longer and attempt new strategies to overcome challenges.
Now Murphy & Dweck (2006) have produced evidence that organizations that espouse a theory of intelligence (that is that intelligence is fixed or malleable) have a significant influence on how members present themselves, what personal traits they viewed as important, and how they evaluated others.
Murphy & Dweck performed four separate experiments with students who were applying to join a school tutoring club. Half the students received a copy of club minutes that described and endorsed a fixed view of intelligence, and proposed a volunteer project with a community organization that shared that view. The remaining students received a set of club minutes describing and endorsing the malleable or growth view of intelligence, proposing that the club work with a community organization that shared the growth view of intelligence. Students were then asked to apply to the tutoring club, checking up to three traits of 14 in the application that best reflected their qualifications.
They found that a majority of students preferred the growth view of intelligence. However, the students who had seen the fixed view of intelligence were more likely to check characteristics related to grade point average, IQ, SAT scores or other measures of intelligence. Students who had seen the malleable view were more likely to choose motivation oriented items such as overcoming personal hardship, passion for tutoring, stories of personal improvement.
In a second study, after the tutoring application, students were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked them to describe “the essence of who you really are”. What they found was that students who saw the fixed theory of intelligence were more likely to select items that emphasized “smarts”, while students who saw the growth version were more likely to select “motivation” items. Researchers concluded that exposure to an organization’s theory of intelligence might actually change someone’s self-concept.
In a final experiment, students completed the tutoring club application experiment, and then were asked to complete a second unrelated study. They were then asked to participate in a mock hiring committee evaluating four candidates for a program coordinator position. One candidate emphasized smarts, one emphasized motivation and passion, while the other two emphasized other unrelated qualities. All candidates were match with equal qualifications. Students who had been exposed to the fixed theory of intelligence chose the “smart” candidate 78% of the time, While students exposed to the growth theory of intelligence chose the “motivated” candidate 92% of the time.
The authors’ conclusions were that people tend to display and adopt the dominant views of the organization in order to fit in to the organizational culture.
Why does this matter? Organizational culture is one of the six dimensions of strategic leadership. Culture is a set of shared beliefs and values in an organization, including our implicit theories of intelligence. Leaders need to develop productive cultures. Organizations that espouse the view that intelligence is fixed are far more likely to have a large number of people who exert less effort and become defensive in the face of challenge, making the organization less resilient during difficult times. Leaders need to question their assumptions about the nature of intelligence, and the impact of these assumptions on organizational culture and resilience.