Deconstructing the Development Mindset

Since Peter Senge coined the expression “learning organization” more than two decades ago, businesses around the world have aspired to leverage learning toward agility, transformation, and long-term success. And most leaders will admit that they still struggle to make this dream a reality.

But what if we reframe the conversation? What if we shift the focus from the organization to the individual?

Because learning organizations are the result of individuals who possess a deeply held learning orientation and a commitment to growth. Learning organizations are the result of a workforce that shares a development mindset.

Defining “development mindset”

A development mindset is a pattern of thinking and a way of looking at the world that invites ongoing opportunities for continuous individual and organizational transformation. It’s an abundant perspective that recognizes significance that others might overlook.

Those with a development mindset appreciate that development is a state of mind, not a series of discrete activities or classes. They tend to:

  • Assume that they are capable of learning and growing throughout their entire careers.
  • Expect that there is something to be learned from nearly all experiences.
  • Believe that experimentation and failure are powerful, necessary, and productive parts of the learning process.
  • Take responsibility, initiative, and ownership for their ongoing growth.
  • Commit to helping others reach their potential.
  • Value feedback as helpful information to fuel improvement.
  • Appreciate that development is not a “one and done” activity but rather a perpetual cycle of learning, application, practice, reflection, and refinement.

Messing with the mindset

The workplace has never needed individuals with the development mindset more than it does today; however, many features of the typical organization landscape actively undermine an employee’s ability to develop and practice it.

The breakneck pace of work alone would be enough to seriously challenge an individual’s commitment to the mindset. But add to this the high-stakes nature of many environments and the risk aversion that accompanies it, expectations for instantaneous gratification and month-over-month business results, a silo-based mentality that keeps people in well-defined boxes, a bias for action that encourages people to do something — anything — rather than sit quietly and reflect.

All of this can make cultivating a development mindset nearly impossible for the average employee.

What’s a leader to do?

Given the environmental impediments to promoting a development mindset, it would be easy to simply throw our hands up and declare defeat. But savvy leaders who understand the long-term benefits to individuals and the organization can choose to take steps to create more hospitable and supportive conditions for their employees. They can do this by:

  • Modeling the development mindset themselves.
  • Establishing the expectation for ongoing learning.
  • Setting, supporting, and following up on development goals.
  • Looking for organic, work-based experiences that will help others remain engaged and growing.
  • Encouraging two-way mentoring.
  • Helping people pause, reflect, and crystalize insights.
  • Asking “what did you learn from that?” until it’s so deeply ingrained that employees naturally and unconsciously ask it for themselves.

Remaining competitive in a dynamic and unpredictable marketplace demands that organizations continuously and quickly learn, adapt, and transform themselves. And this becomes considerably more possible when each individual develops a development mindset.

Employee engagement will be key in the months to come – to retain the employees you have and to build an employment brand that will attract top talent. And career development is a primary driver to make both happen. If you’re looking for actionable strategies for growing and retaining employees, download our latest complimentary e-guide, Looking to Improve Engagement? Look No Further than Career Development


Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni is a guardian of growth, defender of development, and promoter of potential in today’s workplace. She’s the author of  Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive and co-author of the international bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 speakers, Julie offers memorable and actionable live and virtual keynotes and presentations worldwide. Julie is a regular columnist for Training Industry Magazine, SmartBrief, and contributes her thought leadership around career development and workplace trends to The Economist and other publications. You can keep up with Julie through her blogLinkedIn and Twitter.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Fantastic Julie – had to reshare on LI and Twitter (couldn’t tag you on LI, even though I started following?).
    Book could and should be written about this/these topics, to me it relates to the most basic human value of “Freedom” and life probably best guided by phronesis, surrounded by the 4 fundamental values of “The Good, The True, The Just and The Beautiful” provided to us by the ancient Greeks.
    The reshare on LI:

    Insightful and thoughtful piece by Julie Winkle Giulioni – bravo!

    Beyond anything else developing a development mindset is a conscious effort and strongly tied to the ability to reflect and contemplate. Transgressing the learning context and re-contextualising in new and different settings stretches the application into the realm of conceptualisation and underlines “development is not a “one and done” activity but rather a perpetual cycle”.

    BAU eats your oxygen and narrows your vision – a stasis at best and most often degenerative.

    Leaders and employees (all are in fact employees) need to establish safe, hospitable and supportive conditions for development and reflection – and remember tapping your finger and running around looking busy is a symptom of timesheet tyranny.

    Freedom is still the foundation for autonomy and hence the chance to present your (true) self to the world. To a controlling mindset, this comes across as counter-intuitive because that mind is short-term. Stepping into the long-term means stepping out of the level of being in time (Peter Koestenbaum) – at this level, we have a chance to conquer the time problems. This requires courage, reflection and the development of a development mindset.

  2. Aldo, this is simply beautiful. I love the imagery of the learning river. Solving today’s problems and deriving optimal satisfaction from our work really does require that we allow our knowledge, skills, gifts and talents to flow. And in the process of benefitting others, we’ll benefit ourselves. I also really appreciate the connection you make to confidence. This is key… in fact, I’ve dedicated a chapter to this topic in my new book. Your advice about what’s required to instill this mindset in an organization/individuals is right on…. especially work-life balance (which I’m thinking of more in terms of harmony than balance – but that’s for another discussion!) Learning and growth are impossible when we’re flat out, exhausted, and unable to pause/reflect. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. We’re clearly kindred spirits.

  3. Educational article. Congratulations!
    Unfortunately, many of those who make personal growth a part of their lives do it only to add value to themselves.
    We should imagine ourselves as a river, rather than as a reservoir. The opposite of a reservoir that accumulates, a river flows. Whatever water he receives, he passes it on and gives it away.
    This is the way we should act as we learn and grow. Giving your time, expertise and resources without expecting anything in return is a selfless act that makes the world a better place. Also, when you focus more on the wants and needs of others, your own wants and needs are met more.
    Leaders with the right mindset empower everyone to succeed and grow. They instill the culture of success in the organization and show employees the path, giving them confidence.
    Anyone can learn any skill! You have to believe in this belief, for your success but above all for your team. In fact, the development of talents motivates the team and empowers collective behaviors.
    To develop a leadership mindset in employees, at all levels: educate in the development of leadership skills, use language that reflects the culture of success, disseminate key values, work on company culture, celebrate and reward people who show leadership skills, promote work life balance.