Is it true that we learn better together?

As a promoter of life-long learning, I am always interested in what others are saying about personal growth and development. I recently came across an artistic infographic on the subject of LLL. One of the concepts in this diagram was the oft-stated truism that “we learn better in groups.”

Not necessarily so. Like any truism, it’s only true to a point.

We learn large blocks of content better by ourselves

If you have to acquire a mass of information, this is best done by oneself. Even in a class lecture setting, it is up to the individual to listen, to take notes, to intake the content. You can’t listen as a group. If you are reading a text, you have to do so as an individual. Any time the acquisition of content is the goal, direct instruction or direct intake through reading by the individual is necessary.

Billy Joel once sang, “sooner or later you wind up asleep in your own space.” Likewise, in the intake of information, you wind up in your own mental space.

Now, you can process this information in a group, which further cements the content in the mind. Questioning and examining other viewpoints can be quite invaluable at this stage. But in the initial intake of information (or in learning skills), one has to be able to do it on her own.

Some people simply learn better solo

You can’t make the blanket statement that “we learn better in groups” and also maintain the concept that individuals have different learning styles.

Some people, through personality, mental wiring, and prior experience, are better learning by themselves. The dynamic of the group may not be conducive for such learners to learn at their peak.

Transparently, I am one of those learners. If I’m in a group setting where the leader instructs us to complete a group learning activity, I inwardly groan. “Just give me the information, and I’ll internalize it the best way for me.” It’s important to have the meta-cognition to know how you learn best. For some, that’s not in a group.

Again, I do like to process what I’ve learned in a group. Discussing concepts with others may reveal aspects that I haven’t considered. But for me, it’s not a necessity.

The problem with truisms

The problem with truisms is that when you attempt to apply them to every situation, they don’t always work. Developing an educational philosophy around the maxim, “We learn better in groups,” can seriously short-change the educational process.

I’ve been around enough middle school students to understand that, of course, they love to work in groups. But it’s not because the learning is better; it’s because they’re social creatures. As an educator, I made sure to balance group work with a good amount of individual work and direct instruction.

If we take this idea uncritically, we run the risk of creating an entire educational methodology around a platitude. The best education utilizes multiple techniques, including the old ways of direct instruction and individual study, to achieve learning.

How to increase your value at work

There are numerous ways you can increase your value to your employer, and by so doing, you may just be able to increase your pay as well. Let’s examine these.

  1. More output

You could simply work harder and faster. This is the simplest path to value. However, creating value in this way is largely in the purview of workers, not leaders. Front-line workers are able to bolster their worth by becoming more efficient at their tasks. Ironically, it is these workers that are often promoted to leadership, even though sheer output is rarely an indicator of leadership prowess. Being the leading worker does not make one a leader of workers. But if you are a leader, you could work with your team toward higher volume.

  • Enforce higher standards

You could take the level of your work to a higher plane. This is different than “more output;” this is doing things better – higher quality, more cleanliness, more cost-effective, and so on. If you are a leader, you can “inspect what you expect” to achieve higher standards.

  • Take ownership

Within your given roles, you could assume more responsibility and ownership, becoming less of a steward and more of an owner. This means you’re less likely to report problems to your superior and more likely to solve them yourself. Assuming your leader is willing, you could improve your benefit to the organization by not having to “bug” your boss for a decision. Over time, work to earn the trust of your superiors to assume this level of ownership.

  • Take on new roles, add new skills

Here it gets a little bit touchy. If you’re like me, you probably think you already have enough on your plate to take on something else. However, one of the simplest ways to improve your value is to have a varied skill-set. And if you try to do this by working 60 hours instead of 50, you’ll be largely ineffective in pulling it off. So, in order to add new skills to your arsenal, you’ll have to eliminate parts of your current roles. This largely happens through the art of delegation. Which leads us to –

  • Build the bench

Developing leaders around you is not only good for freeing you up for new roles, it’s also directly related to your value as a leader. The leader who would rather “do it herself” has reached the end of her effectiveness as a leader. Fear of training yourself out of a job should never enter the mind of a great leader. If you develop others and duplicate yourself, you’ll be free to take on new roles, and more importantly, to…

  • Step back and envision a better future

There are “leaders” who largely manage what is, and then there are those who exercise “heads-up leadership” and see a brighter future. These are the most valuable, but all too rare, of supervisors. Since most leaders are “doers,” ceasing one’s activity to plan, to envision, to dream is difficult – but it can increase your work worth.

  • Self-development, knowledge growth

Leading others begins with leading oneself. Leaders should be learners, even if it’s not directly related to job training and development. All to often, we see professional development as a necessary evil and not to be pursued unless it’s attached to a pay increase. But great leaders don’t think that way. If you pour into yourself, even if there’s not an immediate connection to your work, you will increase your capacity to lead others.

Discussion question: In which of these areas could you take some steps right now to increase your value?

Some thoughts on personality assessments

I’ve come to enjoy seeing people discover more about their strengths and love coaching them in how their strengths make them a better leader if they would stop trying to fix their weaknesses and simply focus on what makes them great. To see people value their uniqueness where they once thought poorly of themselves is a fulfilling thing.

But, as a self-identified “assessment-junkie,” I need to express a few caveats.

One assessment doesn’t tell the whole story

There is value in submitting to multiple assessments. I have done this, and for the most part, they paint the same picture, albeit from different angles. But, trying to understand yourself through only one assessment is like assuming you “get” your spouse after one date.

Case in point – Two of the people with whom I work, along with me, have taken the “StandOut” test from Marcus Buckingham. We all three scored the same in our top two strength Roles – Equalizer/Creator. We all thought it was accurate in its descriptions. Yet, we couldn’t be more different in other ways. One is a “High-I” (DiSC) and talented in Influencer strengths in the Clifton. The other is a “Screaming-High-D” and an Executor. I’m a “High-C” and a Strategic Thinker.

So, it’s always best to carefully read the reports that normally accompany your results and make note of which descriptors fit you and which don’t. Not every Type 3 (Enneagram) is built the same.

Your type is not you

As I mentioned in the previous post, there can be a tendency to identify yourself by a category of an assessment. I did it myself just two paragraphs ago. But understand this. That’s just a shorthand way of speaking. It’s not you.

If you are prone to thinking, “I am a 5,” (in Enneagram terms) in the same way that you might say, “I am a redhead,” well, let’s just say it doesn’t work that way. Your “type,” regardless of which test we are talking about, is more of an adjective than a noun. Meaning, types are simply collections of descriptive character traits that you may display. It’s not some genetic trait. You are not imprisoned by your type.

In the Clifton Strengths, my dead last theme is Competition. This means that if you want to motivate me to produce more by staging a contest, it’s probably not going to move my needle much. However, there are times in my work where I’d better access a little competitive spirit. And though it’s not a strength, it’s not as though I am completely incapable of it. It’s just going to take more work.

So, we can’t use our strengths/weaknesses as an excuse for not doing our job or not doing it well. Your type is not you.

Every strength has a dark side

Any good character trait, if taken to the extreme, can become a force for evil. Well, maybe not evil, but certainly a force that is less than optimum in your leadership. My strategic thinking could paralyze me if I am unable to act.

This is why it’s important to partner with others whose strengths complement your own. A visionary “big picture” person needs to partner with a high-achiever. Your strengths, by themselves, can become weak when you don’t collaborate.

So, yes. Take some assessments. You’ll love the feeling that someone must have been reading your diary. Most importantly, you’ll come to value your unique self. Only be aware of the limitations of a test.

I teach a course which utilizes the DiSC personality assessment. It’s called “Solving the People Puzzle” and is available in faith-based and non-faith-based formats. Please contact me if you are interested in this for your group or organization.

How a personality assessment saved my career

thought-catalog-217861-unsplashMany years ago, early in my professional career, I started a job as an assistant manager with a Wendy’s franchisee. It was just the right job for me as a young man and leader. Two other young men started with me at or near the same time. One of those young men was Zane Gross.

Shortly after we started, there came a vacancy in the general manager position. Suddenly, Zane and I, along with the other fellow, were in competition for the GM position. Pretty heady stuff for a mid-20s new father like me. We all wanted it. Bad.

Zane was/is one of those guys with a “Let’s do it!” personality. Assertive, confident, outgoing. Me, not so much then. And I tried my best to be more like Zane as we vied for that position. Eventually, our supervisors made the decision to promote Zane, and he did a great job and had much success.*

Several years passed, and I’d moved on to a couple of different jobs. All during this time, I kept believing that if I were to be really successful as a leader, I needed to be more assertive, show greater initiative, move much quicker in decision-making. The traditional view of the up-and-coming, go-getter businessman. In short, I needed to be more like Zane.

It was in one of those jobs that I was sent to a workshop with some of the other leaders. During that workshop, we all took some sort of personality assessment. I don’t even remember which one it was – possibly a GREGORC or a DiSC. The only thing I remember is that there were 4 quadrants.

As the first quadrant was described (the Zane Quadrant), I remember thinking that that’s what I wanted to be, what I needed to be to succeed as a leader. But, no. My quadrant was in the opposite corner, pitiful and weak, with its deliberative planning and organization skills. Big whoop.

When the facilitator got to my corner, he said something that changed my life and saved my career: “Every organization needs this person.”

Every. Organization. Needs. This. Person. Every organization needs…ME!

That was the game-changer. Suddenly I knew that I didn’t need to be Zane; I needed to be Mark. If there were deficiencies in my leadership, it was because I wasn’t being the most effective version of myself, not because I wasn’t like someone else.

In the years that have followed, I have learned that my greatest leadership comes when I play from my strengths. As I continue to coach young leaders, I help them understand and value their unique strengths and talents. I tell them,

“Every organization needs a leader like you.”

Question to consider: What are your strengths, and how do you bring them to bear on your unique leadership style?

I teach a course which utilizes the DiSC personality assessment. It’s called “Solving the People Puzzle” and is available in faith-based and non-faith-based formats. Please contact me if you are interested in this for your group or organization.

*Zane Gross now owns and operates a fleet of Wendy’s Restaurants in the Midwest. He is also a certified coach with the John Maxwell Team. He’s a successful family man and still, like me, a Browns fan.

What this blog is about

gaelle-marcel-8992-unsplash.jpgI loved my time in college. Even now, my wife says that if I could get paid to go to school, I’d be all over it. And she’s right; I’m a naturally curious learner. To some degree, all of us are; some people feed that desire more than others, while others suppress it or let it atrophy, or only learn new things when required by the job.

Psychologists differentiate between a static mindset and a growth mindset. More and more, we’re recognizing the necessity of continuous improvement in our learning. Cecelia Meis writes,

“A growing body of research shows that neurologically, growth mindsets stabilize existing neural pathways and even construct new ones, allowing connections between information and response to happen faster and more reliably.” (Success Magazine, Spring 2019, p. 23)

So, it behooves us to develop and nurture our minds whether it’s actually necessary for our jobs or not.

This brings us to the purpose of this blog. As I think and grow and learn, I want to share some of that to benefit others. To that end, the theme of this blog is “supporting life-long learners.” To do that, I plan to target my writing around four main topics that I hope will be helpful:

  • PRODUCTIVITY – organization, goal-setting, personal assessment such as DiSC or CliftonStrengths
  • LEADERSHIP – including educational effectiveness through classroom management
  • CHRISTIAN THOUGHT – theology, philosophy, biblical literacy, cultural observation and critique
  • CHURCH LIFE – especially in the areas of preaching and worship

…all from a biblically-informed world-view.

So I invite you to join me in this journey. Let’s set up shop here and discuss the world as we see it. Meis goes on to say, “Remember that learning new things isn’t always about getting a raise or earning a promotion. Learning in all forms is inherently beneficial.” (Ibid, p. 24) Let’s discover the joys of life-time learning and how we can help one another on the way. Please follow me; I hope to post 3 times per week. Share this with your friends, and by all means, please join the conversation and comment. I’ll do my best to reply.

Question to discuss: What subject (topic, skill) do you most like to learn about just for the fun of it, and why?

Observations of a guest at the Ritz-Carlton

by Mark Knox, Director of Guest Experiences, Chick-fil-A, Hendersonville

2017-05-17-10-23-38There’s a reason that “puttin’ on the Ritz” is a saying. Dating back to the 1920s, this saying – and the Irving Berlin song of the same name – draws its inspiration from the Ritz Hotel. The Ritz has become synonymous with high living, fashion, and hospitality.

I had the opportunity to spend a night and the better part of a day at the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Part of my purpose as a Director of Guest Experiences was to observe their operation for signs of great customer service.  They were not hard to find throughout my visit.  My wife, who regularly and often stays in hotels as part of her job, was along, and I was interested in getting her perspective as well.

What follows are some of my observations.


From beginning to end, every encounter with every Ritz employee was focused on me as the guest.  Burned into my mind is the image I saw as I drove up to the door…four valets, facing forward, ready to spring into action.  Prior to my pulling up, they were idle and waiting, but not clumped together carrying on their own conversation.  Their appearance was one of welcoming and readiness, in short, focus.

Every employee of the Ritz shared this trait. As my valet who wheeled my bags to the room waited for me to check in, he kept his attention on me. He drew me into conversation, asked if we were there for “the concert” (Neil Diamond that night; yes, we were), discovered where we were from.  Again, while he was waiting on me, he did not divert his attention elsewhere.

I also noticed this in the restaurant. As we were dining, the sommelier came to table next to us to pour wine.  At one point, he took a step back to allow their server to remove some plates.  I thought he might turn to greet us, but instead he kept his focus on his guests at hand, ready to pour the wine when ready.  His attention did not divert.

My wife and I normally stay at decent, clean mid-line hotels.  While I generally have no complaints about the level of service we receive – and sometimes it can be exceptional – it rarely rises to the level of focus that we saw at the Ritz.  For example, it’s not uncommon to walk into one of these mid-line hotels and not see anyone at the front desk; they are in the back office.  Oh sure, they come out promptly and are friendly, but it’s not the Ritz.


During our entire visit, not once did any employee cross in front of me.  This was so pervasive that it became impossible not to notice.  If I was walking through the restaurant, every server who was moving about in my area would stop to let me pass.  The same was true for every valet, housekeeper, and spa employee I encountered.

I often think about how I sometimes bounce around my restaurant, rushing here and there on various important matters.  Do I sometimes cut in front of a guest? I’m sure I do.  I need to look at this.

It was always, “Mr. Knox” and “Mrs. Knox.” There was never the familiarity that has somehow crept into modern 21st Century customer service.  I’ve never been a fan of the “Hey, how are you guys?” model when my wife and I are being served. Our experience at the Ritz was friendly and conversational (“How do you like this Jeep you drove, sir?”), but never presumed to be overly familiar.

While we were at the Spa getting massages, an alarm sounded in the area where my wife was being attended.  The therapist placed a towel over her head and ears to shield her from the sound while she looked into what the alarm was. Having discovered it was not anything that required action, she then asked my wife if it would be permitted to go back to working on the massage. Simple courtesy.

Over the Top

The Ritz is known for its opulence and “beyond the basics” care.  It is, after all, just a hotel, a place to sleep.  But it is so much more.

We were offered champagne upon arrival in the lobby. There’s a TV screen within the bathroom mirror.  After returning from dinner, we found our robes and towels had been replaced and the bed turned down with the next day’s forecast on the pillow.

In my business, we look for ways to “Connect, Discover, and Respond” to our guests.  At the Ritz, when they’d connected with us and discovered that we were going to the Neil Diamond concert, they responded by presenting us with cupcakes after our massages with the message “Enjoy Sweet Caroline” written on the plate in frosting. Truly, good times never seemed so good.

While in my work context, we are not the Ritz, it makes me wonder, are there things we could be doing to go “over the top” for our guests? Things that would create such an experience that they can’t wait to come back? I’m sure there are. We just need to discover them.

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Antietam


Why would you stick with outmoded tactics when the technology had advanced and called for a new plan?

by Mark Knox

Antietam is one of the best-preserved battlefields of the American Civil War, and as I walked its pastoral settings, I thought on the wisdom of the massed charge, which had been the standard battle tactic for some time – line up a regiment of your men and march them toward the enemy en masse. This worked for a time when muskets had a short range and were highly inaccurate.  But by the mid-1800s, the rifled shot had made gunfire much more accurate and deadly.  Yet the generals continued to use the outmoded tactic of throwing wave after wave of men at the entrenched positions of the enemy, often to catastrophic loss of life.

You see this at Antietam at the Sunken Road (pictured), which became known as Bloody Lane because of all the devastation there. This tactic was also used futilely to horrible loss at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  After Gettysburg, generals were less likely to order the massed charge, and tactics began to change, but far too late for the many men who died to their allegiance to tradition.

This causes the effective leader to ask when it’s right to move on and move forward from outmoded techniques of leadership. The inability to leave the past behind cost dearly in the battlefield and costs greatly every day in the marketplace. A great leader ought to be striving for continuous improvement and should challenge the process at every step.  What could make this better? It’s not just, if I were in charge, what would I do differently? It’s also, since I am in charge, what should I do differently?

Don’t be afraid of innovation and change…not simply change for change’s sake. Effective innovation wins battles and limits casualties along the way.

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Gettysburg

2017-03-20 14.21.45
The North Carolina Monument on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg

Leadership questions from the battlefield: Gettysburg

by Mark Knox

How is it possible to lead men to likely injury or death, and have them follow you…willingly?

As I hiked across the farmland outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, generally following the path of the men who assaulted the fortified Union position in what has become known as Pickett’s Charge, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of leadership would create such a following. While there is a world of difference between leading men into battle and leading people in the marketplace, there are some factors that apply.

Let’s not forget the strong pull of military rank and order. It’s a hard thing to disobey a direct order. And I suppose in the world of business, leadership by position does have its effect. But if a leader depends on that, it will be an ineffective leading.

Then there’s the value of the “cause.” Everyone will pull together and follow a leader who has a cause to believe in. This will sustain a leader’s influence for a time. But it’s not enough.

I believe that when you break it all down, people will follow a person more than a cause. And there is evidence that Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces that day, had been able to engender an intense personal loyalty from his men. Not only did they march to their peril in support of their leader, they also wanted to “hit them again” after the failed attempt because of their strong belief in their leader. In the marketplace, this happens when leaders believe in and invest in their people.

People might obey a leader’s position; they might persevere for a time when they believe in the cause; but they will be intensely loyal to a leader in whom they believe…and who believes in them.