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Are You a Knower or a Learner?

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General Leadership

Is it possible to stay fully open to other views when you are the “authority” on the subject? What about if you are the project manager, division manager or even the CEO? What if you actually ARE the proverbial “smartest person in the room”?

What is your attitude to learning? Toward feedback? Toward setbacks and frustration? Can you stay open-minded and internalize and benefit from the feedback you are receiving from your environment or do you shy away from hearing opinions that are different from your own?

Can you maintain what the Zen masters call “beginner’s mind” even when you are, in fact, an expert on the topic you are discussing?

It’s safe to assume that we have all struggled with this in one form or another. As a manager, leader or entrepreneur, when it’s your research, product, or program, it is sometimes hard not to come off as the expert who is confident in his/her own perspective—perhaps, so much so that he (or she) looks down his their nose at their colleague’s feedback, or perhaps avoids it altogether.

There are many psychological factors that go into how someone approaches feedback, learning, setbacks, and the inevitable frustrations that come with organizational life.


Two learning mindsets reflect different answers to the same age-old questions: Where does talent come from? Nature vs. Nurture? Are great men and women born or made?


Research conducted by leading psychologist Carol Dweck has finally closed the case on this issue. It turns out, that our orientation toward learning stems from assumptions and beliefs that were likely programmed into our brains as children. Dweck calls these two very different orientations a “Fixed Mindset” vs. a “Fluid Mindset.”

The short answer is that regardless of the baseline ability that nature bestows an individual, nurture (effort and practice which is heavily influenced by our attitudes toward it) can produce extraordinary gains in ability. Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor who has achieved international recognition as a sought-after performance consultant, has demonstrated conclusively that nurture can indeed trump nature. This does not mean, however, that with enough effort, you can become the next Michael Jordan or Mozart. Rather, from whatever baseline ability you start with, intentional effort and disciplined practice can significantly enhance it.

But what about intelligence? Isn’t IQ fixed? I mean, there is the IQ score.


You may be surprised to learn that what most people think about IQ is totally bogus. IQ is not and has never been “fixed” or “static.” IQ has always been fluid. The inventor of the IQ Test understood this.


Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, never intended his assessment to be a measurement of fixed intelligence. As a Frenchman working in Paris in the early twentieth century, Binet designed the test to identify children who were not benefitting from the Paris public school curriculum so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track. Without denying individual differences in people’s intellects, he believed that learning and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.

Utterly convinced of the fluidity of intelligence, Binet wrote, “A few modern philosophers … assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism … with practice, training and, above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.”

In the process of investigating the Nature vs. Nurture question, Dweck and other researchers uncovered the fact that people typically fall into two discrete groups based on their core beliefs and attitude toward learning. The first group believes that ability is essentially fixed from birth; the second group believes that ability is essentially expandable and can be improved with effort. Surprisingly, both beliefs are correct, and the belief itself is the mitigating factor. Pioneering entrepreneur-leader Henry Ford intuited this over a 100 years ago.


“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” — Henry Ford


Our beliefs about Nature (innate ability) vs. Nurture (developed ability) lead to different attitudes toward the “learning gap,” or the difference between our aspirations and our abilities. Fortune 500 management consultant and former MIT professor Fred Kofman refers to these two mindsets as the Knower and the Learner. We use these terms to describe these two attitudes toward learning at the Stagen Leadership Academy.


Knowers Think and Act Very Different from Learners

Those who approach the learning gap with a “Knower” attitude generally have a closed mind because they assume that they already have the answers and are therefore incapable of any significant improvement. This tendency to refuse to admit that they don’t know something, is the hallmark of Knowers, according to Kofman. Yet, as he points out, it’s difficult (or even impossible) to seek and acquire new knowledge unless you are aware–and can admit–that you don’t know.

On the other hand, those who approach the learning gap with the “Learner” attitude are willing to admit that they don’t know. This awareness and admission of the learning gap allows them to approach situations with an open mind.  Learners DO NOT believe that intelligence is essentially fixed and additional effort does little to enhance it.

People who have a predominate Knower attitude were often praised as children for being smart or getting the right answer rather than for their willingness to make an effort and persevere with a difficult task or problem. This left them—and the adults they became—with the sense that their very identity and self-worth were on the line every time they attempted a task at which they might not quickly succeed. For this reason, Knowers tend to approach the learning gap with thoughts such as: I already know this; my ability isn’t lacking; there’s no point in exerting effort because it won’t make any difference.

Rather than risking exposing their own learning gap, Knowers strive to preserve the appearance of competence. But this backfires in the long run. By holding on to the false sense of security of what they know (and who they are) in the present, they unwittingly sacrifice what they could know (and who they might become) in the future.

Dweck’s original research focused on the question of why some individuals are frustrated by failure and abandon their efforts while others are stimulated and even encouraged by similar challenges. Psychologist Richard Bandler said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first.” Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research and development, would it?” Since Knowers are unwilling to “do badly” at first— to practice outside of their comfort zones and risk failure—they prematurely plateau and fail to fulfill their potential.

People who adopt a “Learner” attitude tend to equate effort with improvement and assume that, in time, they will learn to succeed at the tasks with which they currently struggle. Therefore, they view “doing badly”—and the inevitable frustration that comes with it—as normal and to be expected. Learners don’t regard setbacks as failures but as the inevitable twists and turns along the path to increased ability.  

Whereas Knowers are preoccupied with preserving the appearance of competence, Learners aren’t afraid to be wrong; they wear “I don’t know” as a badge of honor and tend to approach challenges with questions like: What can I learn? How might I do things differently? To whom might I look for inspiration and guidance?

Can you think of some situations where you inclined to preserve the appearance of competence, and hoped no one pointing out your inferior performance? I certainly can. But as they say, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”


Learners actively seek out and commit to opportunities that expose their learning gap with the belief that their abilities aren’t static but fluid, and the confidence that their abilities will increase through effort and practice.


Although for simplicity we’ve presented Knowers and Learners as two distinct types of people, in reality, most of us hold an attitude toward learning that falls somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. Further, our attitude toward learning may vary with different circumstances and learning contexts. For example, some people are confident “learning by doing” but less comfortable in a formal classroom setting or when reading texts. The key point is that the more we consciously choose a learner attitude, the more fruitful our efforts will be.


Accepting the Learning Gap

This simple truth applies not just to individuals, but also to teams and organizations: if we want to achieve an outcome, we obviously don’t know how to achieve it yet–or we would have done so already. The key word here is yet.


Your company or organization is absolutely riddled with learning gaps.


Organizational life is all about achieving outcomes. When you are in a position of responsibility or leadership, you often have never achieved those specific outcomes before.

Learning is the road that takes us from here (the current situation) to there (the intended outcome). Not surprisingly, learning—closing the gap between what we want to do and what we are able to do—is essential for success.  I humbly invite you to join me and the other faculty, staff and members of the Stagen Leadership Academy to the daily practice of catching ourselves showing up as Knowers and continually trying to cultivate our Learner mindset.

“Knower vs Learner ” is taught in Q1 of the Stagen Integral Leadership Program. To learn more about Stagen Leadership Academy and the Integral Leadership Program (ILP), please contact info@stagen.com or visit our Contact page.