Creating a Culture That Learns Better and Faster Than the Competition

Apr 6, 2015
9 Min Read

Organizations that want to thrive and sustain their success in a highly-competitive global environment must become high-performance learning organizations or they will become extinct like dinosaurs, argues a new book.  

Edward D. Hess, author of “Learn or Die,” is interviewed by Anita Bruzzese about how individuals and organizations can change their attitudes and practices to embrace more critical and innovative thinking. He discusses a roadmap into how companies can use science to build leading-edge learning organizations.

AB: You note in the book that becoming a learner – whether it's as an individual or an organization – is much more complicated than just learning to think better and make better decisions. Can you explain?

EH: Many people focus on learning just from a “thinking” viewpoint. The science of learning clearly shows that learning is both a cognitive and an emotional process. Our emotions are intertwined in every part of how we think.

For example, positive emotions broaden our thinking while negative emotions narrow our thinking. Being in a positive mood or feeling psychology safe in the learning environment increases the likelihood of learning. Business cultures of fear generally inhibit learning.

AB:  There's been a lot of criticism that some employers will only hire those who exactly fit a job description and don't hire for potential. Can you address how employers can hire those who, as you say, "love to learn" and the benefit of doing such a thing?

EH: There are two basic business models for growing a business organically – operational excellence and innovation. Both require learning. So, hiring people who have a predisposition to learning would seem like a good idea. Some questions to ask during an interview include:

What are you curious about?

What Internet sites do you like to visit? Why?

How do you feel about mistakes?

What do you want to learn in this job?

What was the biggest mistake you ever made? What did you learn?

AB: Let's talk about current workers for a moment. What is the benefit of turning those with a "fixed learning mindset" into those with a "growth mindset"? And how difficult is that to do?

EH: What inhibits many is that they don’t really know how to learn and the work environment is not a good learning environment. So, do you as a leader role model good learning behaviors and attitudes? Do you treat mistakes as learning opportunities or as punishable offenses? In many cases people are fearful of learning based on past educational or work experiences.

AB: In the book you say that just having a learning culture isn't enough – you must also have the presence of certain leadership traits within that organization. Can you elaborate on those key traits and why they're so important?

EH: You need to be open-minded and be willing to say, “I don’t know,” “I was wrong” and “I made a mistake.” You need to manage your emotions and understand that you impact other people through your emotional mood, your body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. You need to quiet your ego and encourage debate, dissent and questioning. You need to manage your defensiveness and really be engaged with people and not multi-task.

You need to be highly sensitive to the fact that you have a huge influence on workers. Critique performance, not the person. Slow down and really listen. Get off the pedestal and never lose sight of what it feels like to be in others’ shoes.

AB: The title of this book is "Learn or Die." Should we take that literally – that if organizations don't have a learning culture they are doomed?

EH: If you look at the research of why good businesses fail, it usually is because of arrogance, group think, hubris, or complacency. Basically they became close-minded, poor critical thinkers and quit learning because they really believed they knew it all.

In today’s global technology-enabled world there is more information, more potential competitors, more buying choices for customers and more social media power. All of that results in change more often. That means I need to be open-minded, “see” what is happening and adapt as I need to in order to stay competitive, individually and organizationally.

AB: If I'm a manager – or even a team member -- who would like to see my organization adopt a learning mindset, is there anything I can do to help that happen?

EH: Yes. In your area or zone of influence start role modeling good thinking and collaborating processes. Start asking learning questions in meetings or in casual conversations, such as:

1. What do you think? Why do you think that?

2. I believe this – what am I missing? Overlooking?

3. Is there another way to approach or solve this problem?

AB: How did your research for this book impact you personally?

EH:  It had a big impact on me.  I started working on managing better my thinking and emotions, quieting my ego, redefining what “being smart” means, actively listening with a non-judgmental open mind to others and treating everything I believe as being conditional subject to stress testing by new data.

I created checklists that I use daily to grade myself and reflect on my learning performance. Overall, I am a better thinker, listener, and collaborator today.

AB: What advice would you give someone who wants to become a better learner?


  1. We need to learn to manage our thinking – when to take our thinking up to a more intentional, attentive and deliberate level.
  2. We need to learn to manage our thinking – when to take our thinking up to a more intentional, attentive and deliberate level.
  3. Learn how to “quiet your ego” so you can be more open-minded and fair-minded.
  4. Change your definition of “being smart.” It is not having the right answer all the time. It is being aware of what you don’t know.
  5. Be willing to constantly stress test your beliefs with others.
  6. Expose your assumptions and inferences. Ask, “Why do I believe that? Do I have enough credible facts or evidence to believe that?
  7. SLOW down to learn. Really listen to others in a non-judgmental manner.
  8. Create separate short checklists for critical thinking; listening; going into meetings with an open mind, managing your ego, etc. Grade yourself daily and reflect on what you did wrong, why and how you will act differently next time.

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