What Does a Congregation with a Growth Mindset Look Like?

August 17, 2018Rabbi Janet Offel & Julie Lambert, RJE

In a well-known and often cited exchange, the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was once asked whether he put on tefillin (phylacteries). Rosenzweig famously responded, “Not yet.” His spiritual life at the time did not encompass this mitzvah of traditional Judaism, but his answer signaled an openness to something that, for him, represented an unexplored avenue for possible spiritual growth.

In the words of Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and researcher, “‘Not yet’ [signals] that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” Rosenzweig’s response, therefore, represents the willingness to embrace growth, or what Dweck defines as a growth mindset.

Dweck popularized the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. While a fixed mindset assumes a person’s intelligence and abilities are pre-determined, a growth mindset assumes that they can be developed based on the person’s efforts, attitude, and environment.

Dweck’s groundbreaking work revealed that when students have a growth mindset and believe they can get smarter, they put in the extra time and effort needed for higher achievement. On the other hand, students with a fixed mindset – who feel that they are either good at something or not – give up in frustration when something becomes too difficult. They also require constant praise and feel threatened when others succeed.

Dweck discovered that it is possible for individuals’ mindsets to change from fixed to growth, leading to increased motivation and achievement.

In more recent years, organizations have applied the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets to their work. Dweck and others have found that organizations exhibiting a fixed mindset approach to governance and leadership attract less motivated people – and individuals who bring fresh ideas and creative suggestions aren’t inspired to remain involved or active in the organization, so they leave or lose interest after a few years. Like children, adults in organizations that exhibit a fixed mindset have a desire to “look smart” and therefore avoid challenges.

Conversely, employees in organizations that embrace a growth mindset are not afraid to take risks and innovate. They understand the importance of experimentation, aren’t afraid to fail, and are able to grow from both their successes and failures. Since their organizations provide opportunities for growth and promote the belief that everyone can develop their abilities, these employees feel more empowered and committed to their organizations. 

Congregations, too, can exhibit fixed or growth mindsets. A congregation’s leadership can either avoid challenges and be fearful of failure, or embrace experimentation and develop abilities and commitment. What, then, does a congregation exhibiting a growth mindset look like?

1. It doesn’t default to doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”

Leaders in a congregation that embraces a growth mindset realize it is impossible to stand still and continue to thrive as an organization. They are honest about the changing world and reflective of the big picture, instead of striving to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Unlike leaders in a congregation exhibiting a fixed mindset, they aren’t afraid to revisit outdated governance models or touch “sacred cows,” such as organizational or staffing structures that were once successful, but are no longer reflective of the congregation’s size or needs.

2. Its leaders take risks and view challenges as opportunities.

Congregations that nurture a growth mindset and the leaders they cultivate look at a problem and see it as an opportunity for growth and change. If something isn’t working, they face the challenge head-on and aren’t afraid to take risks in figuring out how to grow from this place.

3. It welcomes experimentation and isn’t afraid of failure.

Congregations with a growth mindset are open to experimentation – as well as failure! – and recognize that not all adaptations will be successful. They realize that our biggest mistakes and failures offer tremendous opportunities for learning and growth. These congregations develop a culture of experimentation in order to constantly evolve and be responsive to demographic changes.  

4. Its leadership is open, collaborative, positive, and diverse.

Instead of trying to fix a problem by hiring a different person or putting the “right person” in the position, leaders in congregations with a growth mindset focus on collaboration, discourse, and shared accountability. They don’t look to find fault with a particular person when challenges arise, but rather positively and collaboratively work towards growth. These congregations value the unique talents each leader brings to the table, and ensure that their board members and senior leadership – both lay and professional – represent a wide range of competencies and skills.

Although most of us as Reform Jews would not consider wearing tefillin as an experience of spiritual growth, we can all embrace the power of “not yet.” We all have the opportunity to grow spiritually and emotionally as individuals – and collectively as congregations – by nurturing a growth mindset for ourselves and our communities. 

Rabbi Janet Offel is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of consulting and transition management. Julie Lambert, RJE, is the URJ’s associate director of congregational innovation.

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