We’re Awful at Rethinking

As the delta variant spreads like a western wildfire, many of us are wondering why brilliant scientists and communicators like Anthony Fauci haven’t been able to move more than half of us to get a free, highly effective vaccine. We’ve recently gained some valuable insights by reading Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s thought-provoking book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. The book helped us see many things we and others consistently do wrong when we want to convince others to do right.

Grant shares the story of Canadian neonatologist Dr. Arnaud Gagneur, who has a strong track record of convincing hard-core-hesitant moms to get their babies vaccinated against measles and other deadly childhood diseases. Gagneur learned that telling vaccine resisters what to do was counterproductive; it just pushed them into a corner and hardened their thinking. So he pivoted to a different approach: engaging new mothers in an authentic dialogue.

In one such conversation, Dr. Gagneur told a vaccine resister “he was afraid of what might happen if [her baby] got the measles, but he accepted her decision and wanted to understand it better,” Grant writes. “At the end of the [hour-long] discussion, [he reminded the mom] that she was free to choose whether or not to immunize, and he trusted her ability and intentions.” That openness convinced the mom to rethink her views. She reported that the turning point was when Dr. Gagneur “told me that whether I chose to vaccinate or not, he respected my decision as someone who wanted the best for my kids. Just that sentence—to me, it was worth all the gold in the world.” Although it’s labor-intensive, this empathetic, I-hear-you approach could be effective at increasing the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines—at least among those who aren’t ideologically entrenched.

featured quote The approach is called “motivational interviewing.” Grant explains that the power lies in helping people find their own internal motivation to change, which is far more effective than trying to impose change. We’re embarrassed that we’re just now learning about it. We understand that it’s been around since the 1980s, and at least two leaders in the Leap Ambassadors Community, Roca’s Molly Baldwin and Leap support team Executive Director Julie Russell, have been using it for years to motivate behavior changes among high-risk young people and adults struggling with addiction. If you want to learn more, we suggest you visit—you guessed it—motivationalinterviewing.org

The central thesis of Grant’s book is that almost all human beings are terrible at rethinking what we believe and highly resistant to changing our minds on matters great and small, personal and professional. “We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt,” he says. Before you think “that’s not me,” you should know that many studies have demonstrated that those of you who did the best in school are actually the most likely to struggle with rethinking. For example, the most creative architects typically aren’t the ones who get the best grades; straight-A students are “terrified of being wrong” and “so determined to be right that they often [fail] to take the risk of rethinking the orthodoxy,” Grant writes. Understanding and overcoming this Achilles’ heel is critically important for just about everything we try to do in the social sector—from building learning cultures to designing effective programmatic strategies.

Let’s take the first of these challenges—building a learning culture. A few years ago, the Gates Foundation’s leaders engaged Adam Grant to help. They perceived that foundation officers, almost all of whom are classic A students, were adhering to tried-and-true strategies rather than boldly rethinking what’s possible. Grant’s diagnosis: The foundation had a performance culture based on high expectations but not a learning culture in which people feel empowered to take big risks. As one way of helping the foundation’s leaders increase the “psychological safety” for staff to think more boldly, he recorded senior leaders, including Melinda Gates, reading harsh feedback they had received in anonymous staff surveys—similar to Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” segment. Using an experimental design, he showed that these videos helped staff “come away with a stronger learning orientation—they were inspired to recognize their shortcomings and work to overcome them.” He also encouraged the foundation’s leaders to do more to reward good processes (i.e., good thinking and rethinking), not just good outcomes. “Focusing on results might be good for short-term performance, but it can be an obstacle to long-term learning,” he concludes.

On the second challenge—designing better strategies—Grant’s insights are just as valuable. Grant concludes that our biggest pitfall is our natural tendency to take on the personae of preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. “We become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.” The antidote is to work as hard as we can to operate in scientist mode—that is, identifying what we don’t know, creating hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and updating our views based on the results. “This way of thinking values humility over pride, questioning over conviction and openness, and curiosity over closure. Instead of starting with the answers, lead with questions, and see where the inquiry leads.”

So we’ll lead with some questions:

  • How can we apply Grant’s insights to help heal the body politic in these divided, volatile, and even violent times?
  • How can we use empathy to help foundation leaders discover the internal motivation to invest more money, trust, and respect in their grantees and communities closest to the problems they aspire to solve?
  • How can we build rethinking cycles into everything we do—so we can solve, not just salve, wicked problems from climate change to racial injustice?

With a sincere commitment to rethinking,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

We were greatly saddened to hear about the passing of a giant in our field, Dr. Lester Salamon, who directed the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies. Salamon was an American Tocqueville, helping all of us understand the contours and possibilities of the social sector. We deeply admired his scholarship, leadership, friendship, and moral compass. His passing is a huge loss. Our deepest condolences to the Salamon family.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Now that we’ve read Think Again and are hungry for related insights on human nature, we’re likely to read The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, thanks to this insightful post by Hewlett Foundation sage Daniel Stid. He writes, “Many of us make a habit of fooling ourselves much of the time. To break this habit … we need to adopt a mindset that gives us ‘the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.’”

For all of you advocating for wise investment of federal American Rescue Plan and potential infrastructure dollars, please take a look at “Will Relief Funding Help Those Who Need It Most?” Its authors, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Biden advisor Simone Brody, provide five important principles that should be core to any advocacy effort: “trust in data,” “remember that equal is not necessarily equitable,” “rethink, restructure, and even replace broken systems,” “prioritize historically excluded,” and “listen to residents.” Hear, hear!

We salute the MacArthur Foundation for its new $80M initiative to advance racial and ethnic justice. This initiative was made possible by MacArthur’s bold decision last year to join with the Ford Foundation and dramatically expand its payout by means of a forward-thinking social bond. We’re particularly pleased to see that MacArthur’s new initiative includes significant funding for Indigenous Peoples helping their communities recover from the pandemic.

We recommend Project Evident’s new report, Unlocking Real-Time Evidence for Practitioners, which focuses on how First Place for Youth and Gemma Services are using machine learning, precision analytics, and quasi-experimental evaluations to generate fast, actionable insights. The report describes the steps both organizations took to develop their learning systems and user dashboards; the resources and capacity required; and the positive changes among frontline staff, managers, and leadership.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Sep 8-10–Online
Reopening Strong: Re-Establishing Relationships, Re-Envisioning Equity, Re-Imagining the Workplace” virtual retreat; Council on Foundations

Sep 8-10–Online
Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium” The Philanthropic Initiative, New England International Donors

Sep 21–Online
Using Data to Strengthen Your Organization’s Resilience and Agility” webinar; Candid

Sep 27-30–Online
Gen Impact Accelerator” virtual training; 21/64, The Philanthropy Workshop

Oct 14-29–Online
Education for Philanthropy Professionals” course; Stanford PACS