Culture, Intelligence and Resilience: A Leader’s Role

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.


Murphy, M. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2010). A culture of genius: How an organization’s lay
         theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior. Personality and Social
        Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 283–296.
        doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177 /0146167209347380

9 replies »

  1. very interesting Colleen. I definitely have a malleable intelligence, i prefer to work in those types of organizations as well.

    • And I know you are working hard on your assignments right now to prove how malleable your intelligence is, right? Hope your preparation for school is going well.

  2. It’s a good thing we have both. I’d hate to be chipping out this reply with hammer & chisel on a stone tablet.
    I think, inside an organization, you do what you have to do to keep your job. That is, unless you like canoeing up current and you’re damned good at it.
    It would be interesting to know just where students coming out of university sit on that scale before they are damaged by an organization’s culture. Specifically, those who intend on setting the world on fire, before someone rains on their matches.

  3. In my experience many Millennial students hold a fixed view of intelligence, mainly because their parents have pushed them very hard to believe that grades matter, and they have been told “how smart” they are their entire lives, which reinforces a fixed view of intelligence.

    • There is an off-shoot at this point, I believe. These Millennial students who have been told “how smart they are” now believe they were born smart and did not learn to be smart (Leaders are Born, not Made? a previous blog). These same students also reach a crisis point where they fail. If they believe they are not smart enough to overcome this failure the result is usually psychological damage. Most of the time it comes down to “Someone else did it (to me – paranoia) (to the project – sabotage)”.
      I would hazard a guess that those who developed the fixed theory of intelligence where those who could not see beyond their own self-imposed intelligence limit. I do agree that intelligence can become fixed when we stop thinking and being curious.
      I also fall into the group that holds dear the following: “If you think it can’t be done, then get the hell out of the way of those doing it!”

  4. Excellent piece again Colleen. Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset – How You Can Fulfil Your Potential” is full of the same which I very much agree with. Works equally well with the way we teach youngsters (in my case coaching football (soccer) teams at the week-end).

  5. I’ve loved Carol Dweck’s work for some time, but haven’t seen it applied to organizations until your post. It makes me wonder if there are other consequences to organizational performance with a unidimensional role of intelligence. One that I suspect is that these organizations tend to look outside of themselves to buy the “magic bullet” instead of finding the gold in their own mine.

    Thoughtful post. Thank you.

    • Hi Susan

      I’m a big fan of Dweck as well. One of the advantages of being a nerd is that they pay me to read interesting stuff. (Since it is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, I’m practicing my gratitude!)

      I think her work on implicit theories and how it relates to culture might be a pretty powerful explanation of a lot of dysfunctional behaviours. In Dweck & Murphy (2010), they quoted Enron as being an organization holding a fixed mindset, and look what happened to them. It would be interesting to see if performance over the long term is influenced by mindset.


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