“An ant on its feet can do more than an elephant lying down” (African Proverb)

One of the internal challenges that many managers face is the false assumption that they have been employed to be “answer-givers”, “solution-finders” or “problem-solvers”. For some, this assumption and its practice give them a sense of value or “reason for being”. They need to be needed by their staff. For others, having employees come to them all the time for solutions is experienced as irritating and frustrating – they wonder why they have to do all the thinking for the team. Without creating an environment of thinking and a context for the generation of ideas, however, managers actually reinforce employee dependency, a lack of initiative and a deficit of accountability. As the African Proverb above suggests, the team has become an elephant lying down – unable to move forward without instruction.

To create an environment where team members think, generate ideas and find solutions, managers need to challenge their own assumptions first – “I am not here to provide all the answers. I am rather here to create a context where the expectations are clearly understood, to facilitate the team exploring ways to reach those expectations and to enable or empower them to solve any problems along the way”. The manager thus has a facilitator and coaching role rather than a problem-solving one.

Nancy Kline (Time to Think) defines a thinking environment as: “The set of conditions under which people can think for themselves … make it possible for people’s thinking to move further, go faster, plumb insights, banish blocks and produce brand-new, exactly needed ideas in record time”, and suggests the following principles for leaders to create a thinking environment (slightly adapted for this post):

  • Be more interested in where your employees are going with their thinking than you are determined to share yours
  • Be more interested in what is real and true for your employees than you are frightened of being proved wrong
  • Recognise that you are simultaneously essential to your employees, and irrelevant
  • Consider it a success when your employees conceive ideas better than yours
  • Ensure your employees that you will not interrupt them
  • Wonder what more your employees think or feel or want to say – ask, ask again and again
  • Know that this alone may be enough to result in a successful outcome
  • Recognise the universal block to thinking and action: untrue assumptions
  • Master the art of building incisive questions to remove blocks
  • Understand the difference between an assumption and a belief
  • Have the courage to trust the intelligence of your employees

Managers, get employees to think. Albert Einstein noted: “You cannot teach anybody anything. You can only create the conditions for them to learn”. As employees really start thinking, ownership will be embraced and performance will be enhanced.

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