How doctors can benefit from developing a growth mindset

Amanda Lyons

1/08/2018 1:44:42 PM

The medical profession – not to mention the years of study that lead up to it – come with a lot of pressure, but Professor Jill Klein believes mindset can make a huge difference in the ability to cope.

Professor Jill Klein believes a growth mindset is extremely beneficial to help build doctors’ resilience and learn new skills.
Professor Jill Klein believes a growth mindset is extremely beneficial to help build doctors’ resilience and learn new skills.

Being a doctor is a demanding occupation. It requires a vast depth of knowledge, the ability to diagnose (often under pressure), and the ability to handle the weight of responsibility that can involve literal life-or-death decisions.
Even training to become a doctor is characterised by high stress, with a lack of certainty about the outcome, a situation that has led to a serious mental health problem among Australia’s medical student population.
Professor Jill Klein, a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Medical School, would like to see the overall culture of medicine change to be more positive and supportive of medical professionals.
However, she also believes there is another way to help clinicians and medical students learn and develop resilience, by teaching them to move from a fixed to a growth mindset.
‘A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is set, so it doesn’t change much or even at all, and is something you either have or you don’t,’ Professor Klein told newsGP.
‘People may think this about certain skills or abilities. For example, some people are good at art or maths, while some aren’t. In medicine, it might be thought that some people are good at manual dexterity and some people aren’t.
‘A growth mindset, by contrast, is focused on the idea that these things are actually malleable; that you get smart or you get good at things by practice and having people help you learn, and sometimes also by having failures and learning from those failures.’
Whether a person has a fixed or a growth mindset can have significant implications for their ability to cope with setbacks and learn new skills.
‘If you have a fixed mindset, you’re less likely to want to take on challenges than if you have a growth mindset, because the chances that you might fail in a challenge are greater than if you do something that’s easier,’ Professor Klein said.
‘If you believe you either have it or you don’t and you fail when trying to do something, then that tells you that you don’t have it.’
Mindset can also affect a person’s ability to accept and learn from criticism.
‘If you have a growth mindset, you see negative feedback from a mentor as an opportunity to learn from someone with more experience,’ Professor Klein said. ‘But if you have a fixed mindset, what you’re likely to do is defend against it, if you can.
‘So if you are a trainee or an intern and your supervisor gives you some negative feedback, you might decide they didn’t really see what you did, they don’t really know what happened or they aren’t in a good position to judge – or that it was somebody else’s fault.
‘Those are all things we can do in a fixed mindset to protect ourselves from the belief that we don’t have it.’
Thankfully, Professor Klein said, a growth mindset is something that can be learnt, which itself can be ironic from a fixed mindset point of view.
‘Sometimes when I teach this, people say, “Okay, so how can we measure it?”’ Professor Klein said.
‘You can measure it, but that’s not what you want to do because we can all move towards a growth mindset, and those of us who generally have a growth mindset can still have our fixed mindset moments.’
According to Professor Klein, developing a growth mindset is something that requires practise and effort, just like any other skill.
‘When you are taking on a challenge, or you get criticised about something, those are times when a fixed mindset is likely to hit you,’ she said. ‘So you want to listen for your fixed mindset voice: “If I can’t do this, I’ll be a failure”, “If I had talent, I would have been able to do that”.
‘When you hear that think, “What is a more of a process-oriented, growth mindset thing I could say to myself?” Perhaps, “I might not be able to do this the first time, but it’s just going to take practise”.
‘So you listen for the fixed mindset thoughts and speak back with the growth mindset thoughts. The idea is that [growth mindset] will become your default cognitive habit over time.
‘It’s not easy to change our cognitive habits, but it’s like learning to drive a car – it gets easier and easier.’
Having a fixed mindset can be particularly hard for people who are entering the medical profession, as high achievers often struggle with being surrounded by other high achievers and no longer being ‘top of the class’.
‘For many people it’s like a core piece of their personality is grabbed away from them, and that can be very consequential,’ Professor Klein said.
To counter this problem, Professor Klein teaches a growth mindset way of thinking as a component of training at the Melbourne Medical School, which can help students move from a focus on personal achievement towards the learning itself. Working clinicians can also learn this mental skill by taking the Specialist Certificate in Clinical Leadership.
‘Part of the challenge [for many students] is trying to recalibrate, that their identity is about being in the program at all and becoming good doctors. That learning isn’t just about tests; it’s also about, “Will I be able to do right by my patients?”’ Professor Klein said.
Moving from a fixed to a growth mindset is also beneficial for building resilience and positive mental health, a crucial issue for people working within the medical profession.
‘This is because resilience tools have to do with how we interpret events that happen to us, and there’s healthy and unhealthy ways to do that,’ Professor Klein said.
‘With a growth mindset, it’s easier to come up with healthier attributions and appraisals for the things that happen to us.’
Professor Klein also believes a growth mindset can be extremely helpful to medical professionals at times of great stress, particularly when trying to cope with the aftermath of a medical error.
‘It’s hard having responsibility for patient welfare and dealing with the fact that everyone’s going to make mistakes,’ she said. ‘If you’re lucky, someone else is going to catch the mistake or it won’t make much difference to the patient’s experience. But if you’re unlucky, someone’s going to get hurt.
‘But we are human beings, we make mistakes. These are difficult judgements we’re trying to make in very difficult circumstances.
‘A good doctor learns from mistakes. It’s not that a good doctor never makes mistakes.’

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