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Today’s workplace requires that employees be adaptive learners

Once upon a time, you may have thrived in the workplace by being smart. But IQ smart may not be enough anymore.

Furthermore, what you already know may not count as much as your willingness to acknowledge what you don’t know and your willingness to learn more.

Edward Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, has done some interesting research into the need to be an “adaptive learner,” a person who honestly sees his or her shortcomings and asks the right questions.

I wrote Hess to ask if he’d found generational differences in the tendency to be more afraid of “looking dumb” by asking questions. (Conversely, is there an age group that tends to be false know-it-alls?)

Hess dodged any generational schism by answering that he hasn’t researched demographic differences. Rather, he wrote back, “Emotional defensiveness is part of our ‘human nature’ – we all are insecure and fearful – it is just a matter of degree (how much) and how we manage it.”

Briefly, here are Hess’s seven main prescriptions for the learning skills needed in most workplaces today:

• Admit you’re not as smart as you think you are. Focus on continuous learning and develop your critical thinking skills.

• Listen and collaborate. Don’t get defensive when challenged. And don’t just look for information that confirms your existing thinking.

• Learn because you want to. In a world that requires innovation, you need to be driven by curiosity and love of learning, not by external requirements or rewards.

• Don’t fear mistakes. Mistakes help you learn. They’re good “stress tests” for your beliefs.

• Be willing to try. Believe you can succeed. That builds “self-efficacy,” or confidence that you can handle something well.

• Seek out feedback. Negative feedback can be constructive – and hard to get in some organizations.

• Recognize and manage your own emotions. And recognize and understand the emotions of others.

This last bullet point deals with “emotional intelligence.” Scads of books address the topic. You can read more in Hess’s “Learn or Die” book or in those by Daniel Goleman, a pioneering thinker and author in the field.

Most workplace consultants will tell you that emotional intelligence can be as important as business location, financing, market need and innovation. Emotional intelligence is how leaders get followers, and how followers rise in the ranks.

“Today,” Hess said, “the 21st-century learning skills require one to be good at thinking critically and innovatively and listening, collaborating and emotionally engaging with others.”

It’s a reminder that the human touch – rather than the next-generation software – sometimes makes the difference in getting the next client or contract or keeping the ones you have.

The truism no matter the industry or occupation: People like doing business with people they like.

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