General Session - Monday - Adam Grant
ATD Blog

Think Like a Scientist

Monday, May 22, 2023

Adam Grant challenges ATD23 attendees to rethink what they know.

In Monday’s opening general session, Adam Grant—organizational psychologist at Wharton, bestselling author of Think Again, and host of the podcast WorkLife—addressed the issue of what causes people to struggle at work and how to “make work not suck.” In his keynote, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” Grant advised that attendees build a challenge network, create psychological safety, and rethink their mindsets.

Challenge Network

Most all of us need someone—or multiple someones—to help us see our blind spots and, subsequently, grow and learn. Grant called these individuals “disagreeable givers.” On the surface, these people may have a rough personality, but—unlike “agreeable givers,” who say yes to everything because they don’t like confrontation—disagreeable givers will give you tough love and tell you what you may not want—but need—to hear.

“Honesty is the highest expression of loyalty,” Grant shared, saying that disagreeable givers will protect us from our worst selves.

The number of people we need in our challenge network relates to how important of a decision we’re making. If we’re making a significant choice, we need a greater number of independent voices who will provide honest feedback.

Psychological Safety

Organizations lack psychological safety when leaders expect employees to approach them with solutions rather than problems, which creates a lot of missed opportunities.

To create a psychologically safe work environment, leaders need to go beyond saying their door is open; they need to be able to take criticism themselves. This opens the door for others to do the same.


For example, in what can be a matter of life or death, toxic work environments in the healthcare field may lead to personnel not speaking up out of fear, Grant said, noting that these organizations are much more likely to see repeat errors.

Grant also shared how Bridgewater Associates and its founder Ray Dalio exemplify a psychological safe environment where employees are encouraged to challenge the status quo.

Grant mentioned three examples: during onboarding, when new hires are invited to say whether they agree with Bridgewater’s principles; during performance reviews, when challenging those above you is factored into the review; and in the everyday culture of the organization. Grant recounted an example of a junior staffer sending an email to Dalio, giving him a D- grade for his presentation.

What matters, said Grant, is the second score: how you accept the first grade and your willingness to improve yourself. Do you get an A+ for your willingness to grow and learn?

Rothstein - ATD23 - Adam Grant

Our Mindset

Preachers, prosecutors, politicians, and cult leaders proverbially purport some fashion of “I’m right” and “you’re wrong.”

Instead of adhering to a similar mindset, said Grant, we can embrace the mindset of a scientist. That is, we can think of initiatives as theories, hypotheses, and experiments and be ready to pivot when our ideas don’t work out or need to change.

He then challenged attendees, “What habits do you have that are no longer serving you well?” The sooner we can admit that our practices don’t fit with the new reality, the faster we can get to what does work and what is right, Grant stated.

In Practice

Grant continued his general session by providing some strategies to fold his ideas (challenge networks, psychological safety, and scientist mindset) into daily life.

“Language really matters,” Grant said. We can look at the way we do things as piloting (something talent developers are familiar with in their L&D initiatives) and experimenting. It’s important to ask, what is the alternative hypothesis?

Final Takeaways

Grant, a former diver, admitted his fear when he tried new dives. On a particularly challenging endeavor, his coach posed this question of Grant, “Are you going to do this?” “Yes,” Grant responded, to which his coach followed up by asking, “What are you waiting for?” That is a lesson we can all embrace when we come face to face with our fears.

About the Author

ATD23 News is your source for news, updates, and session coverage for ATD’s 2023 International Conference & EXPO.

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