“Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know”

May 1, 2021

By Adam Grant

Humans are creatures of habit, and our habits of thought are no exception. At work, these rote behaviors and “best practices” can facilitate efficient training and delivery of services, but when we hold too tightly to the comfort of what we think we know, we eliminate the possibility of change and growth. Being good at thinking — as so many bright lawyers are — can make us worse at rethinking because our certainty makes us ever blinder to our own limitations. The ability to recognize what we don’t know, to investigate and be willing to change our minds, may be the most crucial skill for thriving in our rapidly changing world. Adam Grant’s latest book takes a deep dive into the psychology of what it takes to unlearn and think again. Here are some highlights:

Leave behind overconfidence and adopt a scientist’s perspective. Armchair Quarterback Syndrome, where confidence exceeds competence, prevents people from being able to rethink. “If we’re certain that we know something, we have no reason to look for gaps and flaws in our knowledge — let alone fill or correct them.” Overconfidence is not just about protecting a fragile ego. It also points to poor metacognitive skills: Armchair quarterbacks aren’t very good at thinking about their thinking. “Lacking competence can leave us blind to our own incompetence…When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence.” The antidote is to adopt a scientist’s perspective. Let go of ego and assess how much you actually know — and how you could build your on it. This is how all scientific knowledge has been built over time, and it takes patience and humility.

Get comfortable with being wrong. Attaching our opinions to our identity — needing to be right because it is who we think we are — is what keeps us from recognizing when our opinions are off the mark. In order to embrace the freedom and learning that comes from being wrong, we need to detach. “Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe.” Values are core principles: integrity, honesty, liberty, safety, inclusivity. Your commitment to those values doesn’t change, but you can stay open about the best ways to achieve them, methods which will change over time in light of new evidence and greater diversity of thought. Put another way, scientists are comfortable with being wrong in the short run because they are terrified of being wrong in the long run. “…that means they have to be open to stumbling, backtracking, and rerouting in the short run.”

Foster constructive conflict on your teams. It’s tempting to stock your team with people who agree with you on strategy and execution. While that certainly makes for a great support network full of encouragement and validation, it rarely encourages us to rethink our positions. Too many leaders “tune out boat-rockers and listen to bootlickers.” Instead, try creating a “challenge network” full of people who know your weaknesses and blind spots. “The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and hold us accountable for thinking again.” But it’s key to make sure this constructive conflict — known by psychologists as “task conflict” — doesn’t spill over into interpersonal conflict. The adversary is actually the problem you are all trying to solve, not the other person, so you should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Changing people’s minds is much harder than we think. (Though the last few years in American politics have certainly driven home this truth!) Research shows that appealing to reason and data make little difference in changing someone’s mind, which is a tough pill to swallow for lawyers who argue for a living. For instance, efforts to convince vaccine hesitant people to vaccinate their children don’t just fail — they often backfire. “What doesn’t sway us can actually make our beliefs stronger. Much like a vaccine inoculates our physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance to another opinion fortifies our psychological immune system…We become more certain of our opinions and less curious about alternate views.” Rather than making a direct appeal to a colleague who holds a strong (and wrong) view, deep, nonjudgmental listening with curiosity may disarm them and help draw out their own motivation to rethink their position. “In a series of experiments, interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener made people less anxious and defensive.” It starts with conversation.

Create a “learning culture” in your organization. “Performance cultures” are places where the emphasis on results undermines psychological safety, and people focus on proving their competence, covering up mistakes and protecting their jobs. Sound familiar? “Learning cultures,” on the other hand, encourage people to “know what they don’t know, doubt existing practices and stay curious about new routines to try out.” But in order for those things to happen, team members need to be able to trust that they won’t pay a price for speaking up about problems. Leadership on this comes from the top.

Blind persistence can become foolish without rethinking. Escalation of commitment — doubling down and sinking more resources into a plan that isn’t working because we want to justify our prior beliefs and shield our egos — is a “major factor in preventable failures.” The concept of grit has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and in most cases passion and persistence is a good thing. But grit can have a dark side. “There’s a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness. Sometimes the best kind of grit is gritting our teeth and turning around.” Changing direction is not an admission of failure. It’s the sign of an open, learning mind.

In the end, humility, doubt and curiosity are powerful tools to help us question our decisions and reimagine future plans. Rethinking is a crucial skill for moving your firm into an uncertain future.