A Learning Mindset: Critical Currency for the 21st century



In his latest book, Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman argues that people are fairly adaptable. The problem, he says, is that our capacity to adapt is being outpaced by the ever faster-changing forces of technology. Everything keeps getting faster. We see this every day in our own work, and with the clients that we work with. The accelerating pace of change means that no longer are there any experts; to be at the cutting edge necessitates that everything you are doing is new. As organizational leaders, we are all tasked with operating in this new frontier: to be successful, you have to be willing to dive in, roll up your sleeves and experiment.

However, for many people, this constant state of uncertainty and change is highly disconcerting. In spite of our best efforts, people generally don’t like change and are more apt to maintain the status quo even when change is in their best interest.


The bad news is that we don’t have a choice: In an environment that no longer has a clear roadmap to plan against, adopting an adaptive learning mindset is what will differentiate those who succeed from those who don’t.


So how do we enable people to feel safe, and motivated to change when our human conditioning is actively working against us? The good news is that developing a learning mindset is teachable.


The first step is to recognize the key constraints that prevent people from reaching their full potential as learners:

1. Ego. We all want to be liked and perceived favorably by others. As a result, we tend to defend, deny and deflect what we think may cause us to lose face or to look ill-informed. These defenses are natural but can get in the way of true learning by acting as a barrier to new information. If we can approach what we don’t know with curiosity instead of focusing on how others will see us, we open ourselves up to new possibilities.

2. Fear. The fear of failure can be crippling. We create a narrative of all the ways something could go wrong and cling to that idea as a way to defend against our own inaction. Facing the fear of failure and realizing that it’s never as bad as it seems in your head is the critical first step to overcoming it. In the wise words of FDR, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”.  

3. Complacency. At any given moment, our brains are receiving 11 million pieces of information. Yet, we can only consciously process about 40 pieces of information.  So it’s only natural that they might look for ways to take some shortcuts. In some cases, this is great. It means that we can focus on things like not being eaten by a predator while still continuing to breathe. But in other cases, it means that we make decisions based on opinions we’ve previously formed closing ourselves off from new, potentially valuable information, often without realizing it. When we learn something new, our hard-wired tendency is to retreat to automatic pilot mode, and go with something familiar rather than spend the energy to change our mental framework to incorporate something new.

So, how do we overcome these natural tendencies and constraints? The answer lies in leading with a learning mindset. Support your team by integrating processes which encourage and facilitate learning into your organizational culture:

1. Teach “How” not “What”  – Your goal as a leader should be to provide your team with the tools they need to do what they need to do, but to allow them to develop their own path to find what is important to them. As a leader, your main role should be removing roadblocks, rather than focusing exclusively on the destination. By creating an environment that is flexible you set the tone of being open new ideas and removing any implicit risk of failure.

2. Encourage candor and dissent – There are troves of research on the importance of psychological safety and its impact on team performance. Make constructive disagreement and debate a part of your team culture by encouraging multiple opinions and providing the space for open dialogue and disagreement. As a leader, it’s critical for you to model this behavior and provide a safe environment where dissent – not antagonism – is welcome.

3. Build teams, not stars – If success is about learning, as a leader it’s your job to ensure that your team members are learning from one another. Creating a team with a diverse set of skills supports the message that no one person has all the answers. By requiring that team members seek information out from one another, you get them comfortable with looking elsewhere – outside of themselves – for answers.

4. Reward what you say you value  – Of all of these strategies, this is perhaps the most important one. If you want your team to take risks, adopt a learning mindset and operate outside of their comfort zones, don’t reward those who maintain the status quo. Make a point of acknowledging team members who try something new and incorporate those initiatives into performance reviews or weekly team meetings. There’s no substitute here. Change behavior by incentivizing the change, or you’ll risk the team falling back to old habits and old ways of working.

For more tips on leadership, check out our guide on Awesome One on Ones or connect with us to learn about our training and coaching programs.