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How to Solve Your Skills Gap Using a Growth Mindset

Before you start training your employees for a new skill, teach them to build confidence in their ability to grow.

The Skills Gap is Real

Some of the most common conversations I have been having this year are about ‘the skills gap’ and how ‘we need to upskill and reskill’. Based on what recent research tells us – this skills gap is very real.

For example, CBI and McKinsey reported that 9 in 10 employees need some form of reskilling in the UK by 2030, and a recently released study by Microsoft’s Dr. Chris Braur Goldsmith Uni – ‘Unlocking UK’s potential with digital skills’ — reported that 69% of business leaders believe organizations are facing a digital skills gap.

So, this got me thinking, how easy is it for people to learn new skills — particularly as adults used to working in a particular way for what may be a very long time?

The answer may lie in how you respond to one of these two questions:

1. People who are good at a particular skill were born with a higher level of natural ability.


2. If you practice something for long enough, you develop a talent for it.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the first question, you may be leaning more towards a ‘fixed mindset’ according to Carol Dweck, an American Psychologist who has written numerous books on this subject, including ‘Mindset’. A fixed mindset is one where you believe that many human qualities such as intelligence and ability in different areas are innate, fixed, and unchangeable.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the second question, then you may be leaning more towards a ‘Growth mindset’ where you believe that abilities can be developed and strengthened by way of practice, commitment, and hard work.

CBI and McKinsey reported that 9 in 10 employees need some form of reskilling in the UK by 2030.

The Growth Mindset

So, what have mindsets got to do with learning new skills? Well… a lot actually. The culture we live in has conditioned us to seek harmony, ‘fit in’, and avoid situations where we may disrupt the norm. This encourages a tendency towards a ‘fixed mindset approach’, with good intent, to protect ourselves, others around us and maintain the status quo. However, this will not always serve us well in life and business in the world we now live in, where questioning and challenging the norm is a prerequisite for transformation.

The key challenge is to shift people’s thinking from “I cannot” to “I can, and I will”. The science of neuroplasticity tells us that our brains can reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, thus we can continue to learn new skills and abilities, past childhood, and adolescence.

The evidence for our ability to learn and adapt to our circumstances is all around us – like our 60-year-old aunt learns how to drive for the first time, or a friend who lost their job and now owns a successful business in a completely unrelated area.

It is a natural human condition to continuously improve and evolve and we can see this when we look at our evolutionary story, however, our brain is also wired to focus on survival — to avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Change causes fear and uncertainty so it will guide us back to the norm, the habit that is most comfortable for us. Reflection, understanding, and intention are needed, but perhaps even more importantly effort in the form of action allows us to move forward, embrace new challenges, and learn.

Leadership and a Growth Mindset

As individuals, it is ultimately our responsibility to create and find the opportunities for our learning and development, however, we are also seeing a shift towards the concept of ‘servant leadership’ in the workplace, shifting some of the responsibility to managers and leaders to support their employee’s wellbeing and personal development to be the best they can be.

Ronald Heifetz describes in his book ‘Leadership on the line’ the concept of technical and adaptive challenges. Technical problems can be solved with knowledge and procedures already in existence. Adaptive challenges are completely different, they are complex but ambiguous and learning and innovation are required to solve them. We are increasingly encountering the latter in the uncertain and complex world that we live in.

An example of an adaptive challenge is developing a plan to reskill a portion of a workforce. It will require new approaches and an iterative process, trial and error, and continuous learning to deliver solutions that work.

Heifetz talks about adaptive leadership as the activity of mobilizing people to tackle challenges and thrive. Vision, strategy, experimentation, effective change and people management, time and persistence, and access to a diverse set of views are all basic tenants of an adaptive leadership approach.

Vision, strategy, experimentation, effective change and people management, time and persistence, and access to a diverse set of views are all basic tenants of an adaptive leadership approach.

Growth in 2021

So, what does this mean for us as individuals and leaders as we move forward into 2021?

  1. As an individual, focus on ‘not yet’ versus ‘now’. Carol Dweck gave a simple example in her ted talk ‘The power of believing we can improve’, of a US university who assigned grades for those who did not pass as ‘not yet’, to help embed the mindset that we are all on a learning curve and will get there with patience and effort. Understand your triggers for slipping into a mindset of ‘this is too hard’, ‘life is unfair’ and notice when this happens. Reframe the problem as a challenge, something that can be overcome and is a learning opportunity for you.

  2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Look for opportunities that at first glance you think are not a good fit. Get to know yourself, reflect on what your preferences might mean in terms of potential to be great at other skills you have not been exposed to yet. In other words, move your focus away from what past experience and current skills mean in terms of your capability, instead adopt the mindset of ‘not yet’ and start learning.

  3. As a leader, recognize that we are living through a huge transformation in how we work and how we need to deliver differently to be successful. Leadership is contextual, the approach that may have worked in the past does not necessarily translate to what’s needed now. An adaptive leadership style, one that enables you to mobilize people to tackle challenges and thrive is certainly needed in the current environment.

As individuals, we can and must continue to learn throughout our lives, not just to ‘stay relevant’ but to enhance our resilience, agility, and overall wellbeing in an unpredictable world. The sense of empowerment and achievement we get when we successfully master new skills, as well as feeling more prepared and positive towards change are just some of the benefits of engaging a growth mindset.

As managers and leaders recognize that a growth mindset is a key enabler of transformation. Instill a culture of reflection and continuous learning, where mistakes are viewed as a path to learning and are one step towards instilling and supporting a growth mindset in others.

Incorporating action learning as a methodology in project-based groups, and as part of development initiatives encourages an iterative approach to solving problems and enables people to learn from the actions taken in attempting to solve problems.

For businesses, research has shown that organizations that adopt and successfully implement a growth mindset saw many benefits that enhanced their bottom line. For example, the NeuroLeadership Institute’s 2020 impact report titled ‘growth mindset supports organizations through disruption’ highlights a series of case studies and the metrics of three key benefits — behavior change at scale, increased employee engagement, and greater employee satisfaction.

So perhaps then, we need to take a step back before we go out to develop and/or engage in lots of up-skilling and re-skilling initiatives? Perhaps we need to work to change mindsets as the first step in the path to transformation…

Contact us to learn more about how we can support you to transform talent strategies to unlock the full potential of your greatest asset – people

headshot karen mcloughlin


Karen McLoughlin

Karen has over 15 years of consulting experience spanning across the talent management lifecycle from design and delivery of Early Careers talent acquisition and onboarding solutions through to assessment and development initiatives to support Restructure, Succession Planning, Executive Hire, and Development Activities. Karen’s particular interest in Early Careers recruitment is borne out of her experience working with a diverse range of clients across EMEA to help solve a range of talent attraction, recruitment, and retention issues, supporting organizations to create high-performing, inclusive workforces from the ground up. Away from work, she enjoys traveling, hanging out with her two young daughters, and running.

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