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  • Writer's pictureChanel Grenaway

How to Keep a Growth Mindset in a Time of Failure

Many executive directors, senior management, and board members believe that the organizations they are leading have a learning culture. They might even be able to offer examples of new practices that were implemented as a result of listening to employee, volunteer, or community needs. It is easy to be a learning organization in a time of relative stability, and societal cohesiveness -- think pre-pandemic. As we attempt to rebuild and learn from the last few years, the concept and practice of being a “learning organization” warrants further exploration.

As a facilitator, I’ve been in situations where learning and engagement stopped because mistakes were made, or harm was experienced by a group or individual. I’ve been reflecting on various organizational responses to process failures – particularly from organizations that would characterize themselves as having a growth mindset

When I think of the attributes of a learning organization, I think of the first day of school for a kindergartener, a first swimming class, or a first piano lesson. Teachers and instructors do their best to create an environment that is welcoming, accepting, understanding, and fun. When mistakes are made, students are reminded that this is their first day and are encouraged and supported to try again. Do you remember that first day of school feeling? Do you remember how it feels to try something new, to be lousy at it at first, and then commit to practicing and returning for another lesson? For me, when I start something new, it takes courage and vulnerability, AND a supportive environment – this is where leadership comes in

Within the context of enhancing racial justice and equity outcomes, gaining clarity and defining what you mean when you say you are a “learning organization” is a critical part of the roadmap that will help you to stay the course when the going gets tough. And it will get tough. Here are a few ideas to consider as you revisit what it means to move through setbacks, failures, and harm with a learning and growth mindset.

Encourage meaningful dialogue and questions that centre racial justice and equity

Racial justice work is complex and nuanced. There are no absolute truths or perfect processes, so it is imperative that we create an empowering stakeholder/community engagement process and actively listen to the lived experiences of those that are traditionally excluded and oppressed while building capacity to dialogue with people who have different world views.

  • As a learning organization, how will you respond if a board member (by their actions and words) sabotages efforts aimed at improving equity and inclusion?

  • How might you address either/or thinking or defensiveness that often emerges during conversations about racism, oppression and white supremacy?

Our ability to create a more just and equitable society will depend on our openness to ask different questions, our capacity to listen for greater understanding, and our ability to find common ground and co-create inclusive solutions.

Accept and allow for mistakes, tensions, and the messiness that comes with transformation and growth

As noted, there are no perfect processes when it comes to dismantling systemic racism and redesigning it for greater inclusivity and equity. Mistakes will happen. Contradictions in beliefs and views will emerge, and your ability as a leader to navigate the complexity will directly impact the results and sustainability of your practices. When it comes to acknowledging and exploring complexity, you might try setting community agreements that prioritize respect, understanding, and participation that are based on good faith. It is important that everyone involved: recognize the value of the diversity of lived experiences and knowledge around the table, take ownership of their own learning, and return to the table to resolve and restore trust when mistakes or harm is caused.

In her book, We Will Not Cancel Us, Adrienne Maree Brown explores the contradiction between transformative justice and call-out culture. She notes, “The first and biggest thing is that callouts never feel powerful to me as a move to resolve conflict, especially when that conflict is unveiled without the consent of both or all parties in the dispute. Callouts don’t work for addressing misunderstandings, issuing critiques, or resolving the contradiction.”

She also offers the following questions to ponder before calling out an individual or group:

  • Is/are the survivor(s) being adequately supported?

  • Has the accused individual or group acknowledged what they’ve done, or are they saying something different happened, or even that nothing happened?

  • Has the accused already begun the process of taking accountability?

  • Is the accused from one or more oppressed identities?

  • Does it feel like we can ask questions?

Create a space and environment for your employees, volunteers, and community to participate, learn, reconcile, and regroup during planning and revisioning processes

As a leader, you have the opportunity to model empathetic listening and learning for deeper understanding and transformative action. You can also allocate resources that support staff and community members to feel supported and stay engaged when tensions and divergent ideas emerge. This may include bringing in professional mediators to help with rebuilding trust or restorative justice approaches. It may also include pausing the process to allow for reflection and sense-making.


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