Embracing Growth Mindsets: A Practical Approach for Leaders to Address Class-Based Disparities

March 6, 2024

In work environments where a four-year degree is the norm, employees who are skilled through alternative routes (STARs), such as apprenticeships or on-the-job training, are less likely to feel like they belong in those environments, contributing to less satisfaction, lower productivity, and worse health outcomes.

Organizational psychologist Cat Summers, postdoctoral fellow with the Ford School’s Leadership Initiative, conducts research that aims to help leaders tear down what the non-profit Opportunity@Work calls “the paper ceiling:'' the invisible barrier of biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions that the 70 million workers in the U.S. without a bachelor’s degree face. Her recently co-authored paper, accepted in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, sheds light on a practical solution to the paper ceiling issue: embracing growth mindsets among leaders and managers.

A growth mindset is the general belief that everyone can improve their abilities, like specific skills or intelligence, and is contrasted with a fixed mindset, the belief that people are born with ingrained capability levels.

“The most effective managers and job-applicants foster environments inclusive to all types of employees, and there are subtle, nuanced ways to do that that you may not expect,” Summers said. “Employees from historically underrepresented backgrounds are particularly attuned to pick up subtle cues of threat, and your awareness of that matters in creating environments where they can thrive.”

Summers and her colleagues found that managers with a growth-, rather than a fixed-mindset, significantly reduced class-based gaps in belonging and STAR employees felt happier and more committed to their work. By conducting surveys and experiments with pre-registered hypotheses and analyses, the team was able to directly attribute this effect to the role of growth-minded leaders in mitigating concerns about class-based negative treatment.

“On a practical level, what this means is that leaders must be careful and intentional with how they present themselves if they want to create white-collar environments where all employees can thrive,” Summers said. “Leading with a growth mindset helps STARs rise through the paper ceiling.”

Note: Summers is always looking for participants in her research! If you are interested in being a (compensated) part of this work, please sign-up here: https://forms.gle/nS83TP9V2FpjNaMm7

Read “Managers Can Support Working-Class Employees by Promoting Growth Mindsets” in an upcoming issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin