A new book contends that to be competitive in today's fast-paced, technology-laden world, leaders and organizations must overcome their "human-ness." "Ironically, being human helps us and hurts us," says Edward D. Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. To stay relevant, he says, people must "de-humanize" themselves by overcoming qualities that hold them back from becoming the best thinkers and learners they can be.
Hess says that research in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics has provided an unflattering picture of the way people think and learn. While humans have the capacity to be highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers, our "autopilot" thinking isn't very critical or innovative. Instead, it's rather lazy and is hobbled by our egos, biases, and emotions. This, Hess says, is the "human-ness" people must overcome to stay competitive.
What follows are the first four of eight things that Hess says people can do to think better, learn better, collaborate better, and emotionally engage better. Stay tuned for the next issue of FCMR for his last four ideas.
When we're right, our egos (in other words, the views we have of ourselves) are reinforced and validated - and that feels good. So we instinctively seek out situations that validate our views of the world and of ourselves -and we selectively filter out information that contradicts what we "know" to be "right." Problem is, none of this supports the cultivation of better thinking and learning.
"Effective learning requires us to uncouple our egos from our beliefs by admitting that as humans, we're wired to be suboptimal learners," Hess explains. "In order to learn, we have to be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures and to really listen to people who disagree with us. In other words, we have to be willing to be wrong! Overcoming the strength of our ego-defense systems requires deliberateness, mindfulness, management of our emotions, and quieting our ego."
Believe it or not, it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to learn. Although the brain makes up only about 2.5 percent of our body weight, it generally uses 20 percent of the body's energy. As a result, the human learning machine prefers to operate in a low gear - on autopilot - as much as possible to conserve energy. Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman puts it this way: "Laziness is built deep into our nature."
"What this means is that no matter how intelligent or experienced you are, you probably aren't doing your best thinking," says Hess. "Especially in situations with important consequences, you need to deliberately think about how you, well, think. Are you proceeding based on impressions, feelings, impulses, or a desire to protect your ego? Or are you unpacking and questioning assumptions, weighing alternatives, and digging deeper?
"To start 'strengthening' your thinking, mentally rehearse each upcoming day by thinking about what instances, meetings, occurrences, decisions, and events may need higher-level thinking," Hess suggests. "Then in the evening, take 15 minutes and replay the day with an eye to identifying situations in which your lazy thinking may have gotten you in trouble. Over time, you'll be able to create a checklist of the types of issues, problems, or situations that require deliberate thinking. And forewarned really is forearmed."
Our human drive to be right, combined with our predisposition toward lazy thinking, causes us to be judgmental of other people and situations. We do it in work and in life all the time: That's a terrible idea. He's an idiot. She didn't try hard enough. I know better. And so on. The problem is, judgments like these set the stage for division, resentment, and roadblocks, not collaboration, dialogue, and progress.
"Suspending judgment has always been a particular challenge for me," Hess admits. "My mind always wants to formulate a response or counterattack instead of really listening to what the other person is saying. (Maybe yours is the same way!) I have to remind myself that interactions with others are not guerilla warfare; nor are they tools to help me confirm what I already believe. They are stress tests to help me evaluate and - if necessary - change what I believe."
Throughout history, rigid processes and procedures were (usually) a good thing for humanity. Do Action X and Action Y and get Result Z, which provides comfort, shelter, sustenance, or some other desirable outcome. But in today's rapidly changing world, doing things the way they've always been done is a recipe for obsolescence. We humans will have to start fixing things before they're broken in order to stay relevant.
"It's okay to have preferred methods and procedures, but it's equally important to realize that risk, creativity, and breaking new ground are all part of the learning process," Hess says. "To set yourself and your organization on the path to becoming more adaptable, I suggest following Intuit's example by consciously choosing to bury the 'modern day Caesar' - the kind of boss who dictates exactly how progress should and shouldn't unfold. Instead, encourage creativity and self-efficacy.
"In India, this policy allowed young Intuit innovators to conduct an experiment on helping farmers get the best price for their products - even though management initially wasn't interested in the idea," he says. "After conducting research, these innovators found that the farmers had no information on what price wholesalers would pay on any given day in any geographical market for their crops. So Intuit employees created an app for mobile phones that provided farmers with daily prices from various markets. The farmers could then choose to travel to the market that would pay them the highest price. Today, 1.6 million Indian farmers now use the successful program these innovators developed."
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