Cover of Think Again over colored pencil background

5 Lessons from Think Again by Adam Grant

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist with a clear and personable writing style. Think Again focuses on the need to follow the evidence, be willing to change our minds, and how to help others do the same. I appreciated the implications for addressing entrenched and polarizing partisanship, addressing systemic oppression, education and learning, and organizational leadership. Here are five of my lessons from reading Think Again by Adam Grant.

1. Rethinking and Unlearning

The two keys to thinking again are rethinking and unlearning. Rethinking includes changing our minds, shifting our perspective, considering new information, and being willing to come to a different conclusion, solution, or point of view. Unlearning includes letting go of past perspectives. This might include recognizing the faults in lessons we have learned coming from poor sources, new evidence, past hurts, or our own internalized socialization.

2. Think Like a Scientist

Grant’s central recommendation to thinking again is to think like a scientist. A scientist has questions, considers the evidence, holds any assumptions loosely, and tests those assumptions out. Grant contrasts thinking like a scientist with patterns we often fall into; preacher, prosecutor, or politician. A preacher tries to convince others they are right. A prosecutor tries to prove others are wrong. A politician tries to win the approval of their audience.

3. Relational and Task Conflicts

One of the most helpful insights from Think Again for me was Grant’s distinction between relationship conflict and task conflict. Relationship conflict is about the people involved; who is right, smart, moral, caring, competent, etc. Task conflict is about the problem, challenge, or situation. He points out that relationship conflicts are often difficult, toxic, and obstacles to moving forward, while task conflicts foster new learning, insight, problem solving, and innovation. This isn’t just about the context but also how we engage in the conflict. A conflict between two romantic partners can slip from how to navigate the kids’ competing schedules (task conflict) to which parent is more competent and caring (relationship conflict).

4. Changing Minds

Many of us genuinely want to change others’ minds for good reasons. We might be educators helping others learn, want to garner support for an initiative that could help many, or trying to create social change. Grant reminds us to differentiate identity from action. Many of us with knowledge of social justice know that racism isn’t about identity but someone’s actions.

A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. “Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.

Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

Similarly, being an aspiring ally is not about and identity or label you wear but the actions you take and continue to take. Is being a Christian (or Buddhist or any religion) a label or identity you claim or how you live your life (often imperfectly)? However, when we see people we disagree with, we often lose sight of challenging their behavior and challenge their identity – the essence of who they are. As J Smooth points out in this video, this isn’t effective.

Grant reminds us that if our goal is to create change, growth, learning, and liberation, we must communicate care and respect. Listening is key to communicating that care and respect. If we want to be effective, we must move beyond condemnation to change work.

It is easy to conclude that the ends justify whatever means are necessary. But it is worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character. When we succeed in changing someone’s mind, we shouldn’t only ask if we are proud of what we achieved. We should also ask if we are proud of how we achieved it.

Adam Grant, Think Again

5. Creating Cultures of Learning

Grant distinguishes between cultures of performance and cultures of learning.

In performance cultures, the focus is on results, achievement, attribution, and credit. This can undermine learning and improvement, hiding mistakes, blame, and unethical choices. Grant outlines NASA’s performance culture and the consequences and the slow, difficult, and inconsistent shifts toward more of a culture of learning.

In cultures of learning, people can disagree without fear of consequence, which helps them disagree without being disagreeable. We can better focus on the task conflict and not be tempted to fall into relationship conflict. We can give up “best practices” because they are stagnant and limited and embrace improvement, innovation, and new knowledge and understanding. Leaders acknowledge and role model openness to feedback, mistakes, and their need for ongoing learning and growth. In learning cultures, “I don’t know” and “I was wrong” are seen as admirable and courageous leadership qualities. In performance cultures, they are seen as signs of incompetence and weakness.

Conclusion

Adam Grant always writes with evidence, humor, insight, and stories. Think Again was an affirmation of the best organizations and people I know. It was full of tools and techniques to help move toward more rethinking and unlearning for myself and others. You can find more about the book on Adam Grant’s website, including a helpful discussion guide.

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