Think Like a Scientist: Q&A With Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant

In the final event of our CHRO Connect series, we spoke with Adam Grant about how businesses can plan for unanticipated circumstances, and how to enable people leaders to schedule in unstructured time.

As human beings, we naturally seek out certainty over ambiguity, an inclination that has made the tumult of the past two years incredibly taxing. 

Whether inside or outside the workplace, each of us has had to consider how we make decisions in the face of unprecedented circumstances, and without clear end results. For the fifth edition of CHRO Connect—a series of conversations about the changing world of work—we were joined by Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and bestselling author, to discuss how businesses can be proactive rather than reactive, and how thinking like a scientist can turn previously suboptimal decisions into a business benefit. 

Over the course of five conversations with leading HR figures, CHRO Connect saw us explore the five business and people imperatives we’ve identified as changing the world of work: inclusion, digitalization, employee experiences, agile organizations, and the skills imperative (forming the acronym IDEAS). For this, the final conversation in our series, we spoke with Grant about the skills imperatives impacting individuals, organizations, and the working world as a whole. 

“Thinking like a scientist means you don't let your ideas become your identity.”

Adam Grant Organizational Psychologist and Author

In his position as a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Grant is recognized as a leading expert on how we find motivation, both collectively and as individuals. He’s the bestselling author of five books (including “Think Again,” “Give and Take,” and “Originals”), as well as a regular speaker at TED Talks events, where his videos have been viewed by more than 30 million people. We’ve gathered the highlights of his conversation below, providing three key insights on the nature of decision-making, and how to surface the less readily apparent (but no less essential) skills in your workforce. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

In 2018, Grant approached Fortune 500 CEOs and startup founders with an idea: He suspected the world would see a rise in remote work, and he wanted to conduct an experiment allowing people to work one day a week from anywhere before testing the impact. But every leader balked, saying, “Our productivity is going to fall apart, everyone's going to procrastinate, and our culture is going to collapse.”

What surprised Grant was that this wasn’t a hypothesis—the data was already there, emphasizing that employees who split their time between home and the office were consistently more engaged and productive. The end result? “Obviously, a big missed opportunity. They could have had all of 2018 and 2019 to figure out how to make remote work function before there was this grand experiment that none of us opted into.”

“When you get an hour of unstructured time once a month with a senior person, you ask thoughtful questions.”

The lesson, in Grant’s mind, is simple: Don’t be afraid to experiment. “If you build a culture of learning, people will recognize that you're going to try lots of things. Sometimes they'll be an early beneficiary of a great opportunity. Other times, they’ll be an early victim of a new practice that we decide to throw out the window very quickly.” Be transparent with your employees, and they’ll welcome the opportunity to learn and progress together. 

Think Like a Scientist

Grant refers to the work of his colleague, Phil Tetlock, in understanding how each of us approaches interaction in the workplace, breaking the majority of employees into three categories:

  • Preachers, who spend a lot of time defending their views and evangelizing them. 
  • Prosecutors, who are constantly challenging the views of others, trying to change their minds.
  • Politicians, who only engage with people if they already agree with their views. 

In each instance, the person has already concluded that they are right, and the opposing stance is wrong. What Grant proposes, instead, is approaching discussions like a scientist. “Thinking like a scientist means you don't let your ideas become your identity. That you are as motivated to look for reasons why you might be wrong as you are to search for reasons why you must be right. And you surround yourself with people who challenge your thought process.”

Structuring Unstructured Time 

The pandemic has opened us up to new forms of communication with our colleagues, but that’s had some unintended consequences. Grant explains, “Everybody is doing a good job at staying in touch with their strongest ties, their immediate team, but what we've lost is the creative collisions with weaker ties. People who travel in different circles, meet different people, know different things, and are much more likely to open up opportunities for learning—and also for creativity and innovation.”

While these so-called “watercooler moments” are often seen as spontaneous, their defining quality is actually their informality—and that can be replicated by organizing unstructured time. Discussing his own work as a professor, Grant notes that certain students rarely ask for time on his calendar. But by blocking out his office hours, he lowers the barrier to entry, and diversifies the number of students he’s able to learn from and help. 

“When you get an hour of unstructured time once a month with a senior person, you ask thoughtful questions. You engage that person in on-the-spot mentoring.” By making time for spontaneous moments of partnership, you not only share tacit knowledge, you also create learning opportunities about what skills an employee wants to develop, while also discovering existing skills that may have otherwise remained unearthed. That, in turn, leads to a more collaborative company culture.

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