‘Having a go’ at a new behaviour is essential and this can be tested and supported by finding circumstances for development that are not too daunting or high-risk. Striving to get better, learning from your experiences, reflecting on what occurred and experimenting further are real experiences. In simple terms: mastery comes with practice and starts with a sense of psychological safety – an atmosphere in which new behaviours, perceptions and thoughts can occur with relatively little risk of shame, embarrassment or failure.
Creating a safe context in which real change is possible happens through taking a learning focus rather than a product focus. Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist, has investigated the impact of a learning versus product orientation. When a child shows her parent a drawing they have made and the parent responds with “What a wonderful drawing! You are such a good artist!” the parent has taken a product focus.
The centre of the praise is the picture itself and implicit is that the child has a natural talent for drawing. The child who believes they are naturally good at art (or sport, maths, or anything else) is shocked when suddenly they do badly in a test. Their sense of self is threatened, and they do not have strategies to help them to pass the test next time.
When the parent responds with “I can see you put a huge amount of effort into that picture. I really like the way you mixed the ink and paint”, the parent has taken a learning focus. The praise is for contribution that the child had in their control. The research on these two orientations is clear. For both children and adults, taking a product focus leads to a sense of threat when undertaking new tasks and giving up more easily when the going gets tough.
Focus on the product (Did that presentation win you the tender?) suggests a black or white outcome, which tells you little about the change or how to amend or replicate it. Conversely, when you focus on the learning experience (What worked and what did not? What insights do you have and what might you do differently?), you are more likely to feel comfortable and efficacious. The more open you are to feedback and able to integrate this into your upcoming work, the better.