Lourdes Alemán is part of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab and also serves as a member of the MIT-Haiti, where she leads sessions for Haitian biology faculty on best practices for teaching and learning. She recently developed and taught an MIT course on the concept of Growth Mindset, teaching students how to embrace and overcome academic and career challenges. Lourdes holds a Ph.D. from MIT’s Biology Department.

What is a good leader and how can we foster the right mindsets?

– Good leaders are individuals who can take feedback and learn from a challenging experience. They embrace challenge, look for opportunities to learn in the face of failure, and are not just looking for ego-boosting success. You can foster such a mindset by looking into how behavioral change happens. Sometimes, a ‘fixed mindset’ can be so ingrained in people that they can’t recognize it themselves. It takes time to cultivate a ‘growth mindset’, to develop the belief that talents and behaviors are flexible and can be learned/modified through work and practice.

– Managers who have done mindset training seem to be better at observing changes in employee performance and are more likely to provide their employees with more detailed and meaningful feedback.

– The structure of our school system can contribute to students’ mindset development. Grades and scores are valued so much that students may be rewarded for getting the best grades rather than for taking the most challenging classes, which could be more productive for learning. Companies are like that too and may not reward employees who take on the most challenging, or potentially-innovative, but high-risk work. Students often ask me how to maintain their mindset of striving to learn and think outside the box if they work at a place that does not have that mindset. I don’t yet have a perfect answer to that. I think talking openly about growth mindset principles with colleagues is a good starting point, because these principles have proven benefit in many work environments.

How can stressful situations impact leaders?

– The problem is that when people are stressed out, they often revert to their usual behavior. When you are a leader in a stressful situation, it is even more important to be able to listen to other people’s points of view in order to make the right decisions. It is common that stressful situations can trigger defensive feelings and fixed mindset behaviors, which can make it hard to admit and respond to errors, or to consider different approaches to a problem.