Adam Grant on leadership, emotional intelligence, and the value of thinking like a scientist

Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist and Wharton professor who has lauded the virtues of procrastination and diagnosed what may be 2021’s dominant emotion (“languishing”), joined our North America Managing Partner Liz Hilton Segel and other McKinsey leaders for a conversation on building resilient teams and thriving in uncertain times.

Adams latest book was published in February.

Adam has been recognized by Forbes as one of the world’s 10 most influential business thinkers and is a leading expert on helping people find meaning and motivation in their lives. In his latest book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know, he makes the case for greater flexibility in our views—and offers tactics for leading discussions that may help others do the same.

This conversation was part of a new discussion series for McKinsey partners and clients called “Modern Leadership,” which is designed to explore new dimensions of leadership with experts and leading thinkers who can help strengthen, challenge, and stretch our ability to build resilient teams and thrive in uncertain times. Read on for edited highlights from the session.

On embracing “better practices” over “best practices”

One of the things that scares me in a lot of organizations is how attached people become to best practices. They might’ve been the best at the time that you created them. But as the world around you changes, as your culture evolves, what was best five years, 10 years ago may not be what’s most productive today.

I think the language of best practices creates this illusion that theres an end point, that we’ve already reached perfection. And so we dont need to change anything. What I would love to see more organizations do instead is to strive for better practices, right? To say, “Okay, you know what? No matter how good a practice becomes it can always be improved. And we’re open to trying whatever ideas you have for trying to evolve the way that we do things around here.”

On leading with humility

It sounds like low self-esteem or having a low opinion of yourself or being meek. That’s not actually what humility is. If you go back to the Latin roots, one of them means ‘from the earth.’ Being humble is about being grounded, recognizing that you’re only human, that you’re fallible.

And I think it takes real confidence to say, “You know what? Here are the things I’m not good at. Here are the questions that I don’t have answers to. Here’s what I don’t know. Here’s where I was wrong.” What the research shows consistently is that leaders who are secure enough in their strengths to admit their weaknesses and vulnerabilities actually get better ideas from the people around them, they learn more, and that ultimately enables them to lead more effectively.

I think the balance of confidence and humility is to say: These are not opposite ends of a see-saw. These are actually states that can go hand-in-hand. Confidence is believing that you can do great things. Humility is knowing that you don’t always have the knowledge and skills to do them yourself.

On reading emotions like data

My colleague Sigal Barsade is probably the world’s leading expert on emotional intelligence at work. One of the things she always reminds me is that emotions are data. When you see what other people are feeling, that’s information about what their motivations are, what’s occupying a lot of their energy and attention. Without that information, you’re actually handicapped as a leader.

At the same time, if you never show any emotion, that’s a signal that you lack passion—that, you know, that you’re incapable of really connecting to the challenges of the moment. And so I think as someone who loves data and as somebody who tends to be left-brained, this idea that emotions are data has made me a lot more comfortable bringing them to the table.

On “thinking like a scientist”

For me, thinking like a scientist means you dont let your ideas become your identity. There was a recent experiment with startup founders in Italy that shows the value of teaching businesspeople to think like scientists.

Half the founders are put in a control group. Nothing unusual happens to them. The other half are taught to just think like scientists. They’re told, “Your strategy for your company, that’s a theory. When you talk to customers, thats a way to home in on specific hypotheses. And then when you launch a product or a service, just think of that as an experiment to test your hypotheses.”

Over the next year, on average, the entrepreneurs who had been randomly assigned to learn to think like scientists brought in more than 40 times the revenue of the control group. That is a massive effect. And the major mechanism behind it is those entrepreneurs were more than twice as likely to pivot.

They ended up looking for reasons why they might’ve been wrong instead of just the reasons that they must've been right. They listened to the perspectives that made them think hard, not just the ones that made them feel good. And they surrounded themselves with people who challenged their thought process, not just the ones who challenged their conclusions. I think that's the art of thinking like a scientist.

For more on tips and perspectives on leading amid uncertainty, please visit our Featured Insights on Leadership.

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