In many managers, there is a natural tendency to desire that their staff think like they do, agree with what they say and support their ideas – there seems to be a level of personal comfort and security that goes along with employees nodding their heads and following the manager unconditionally, but this is not really helpful at all. Employees need to be able to think independently, analyse situations critically and find creative solutions to any problems that might come their way. “Thinking for them” does not only lead to disempowerment, but also to lethargy and dependence.

Training employees how to think boosts morale, develops self-confidence and increases collaboration within the team. Team members develop a problem-solving mind-set where:

  • They rely on reason as well as gut-feel
  • They are able to evaluate a broad range of viewpoints and perspectives
  • They maintain an open mind to alternative interpretations
  • They accept and process new evidence, explanations and findings
  • They are willing to reassess information
  • They can put aside personal preferences and biases
  • They consider all reasonable possibilities
  • They avoid hasty judgements

Like any other skill, learning to think critically takes time, perseverance and practice. Z Hereford (Essential Life Skills) suggests the following five critical thinking steps as they relate to problem-solving:

  1. Identify the problem – determine if a problem exists. Sometimes when employees think through the issues, they might come to the conclusion that there isn’t really a problem at all, perhaps just a misunderstanding. If there really is a problem, however, then they need to identify the exact nature of the problem. According to Barry Lubetkin (New York Clinical Psychologist), how systematically someone weighs the pros and cons of a problem and how clearly the person can define and state it, is also an indication of highly developed intelligence.
  2. Analyse the issue – look at it from a variety of perspectives. Is it solvable? Is it real or perceived? Can we solve it as a team or do we need help? By looking at it from many angles, you can sometimes come up with a resolution right away. Hereford notes that this may also reveal a bias or narrow point of view that needs to be broadened.
  3. Brainstorm and come up with several possible solutions – problems potentially can be solved in many different ways. Employees should put down anything that comes to mind, then go over the list and narrow it down to the best possibilities. Having several viable options leads to obtaining the best results.
  4. Decide which solution fits the situation best – different situations call for different solutions. What works in one situation may not work in another, albeit similar, situation. Team members need to take time to determine what will work best for solving the problem at hand. Usually one solution doesn’t fit all problems.
  5. Take action – implement the proposed solution. Discuss progress with fellow team members and assess the success of the applied solution. Make small changes if necessary. Instead of approaching problems and challenges as insurmountable obstacles, managers can view them as opportunities for employees to hone their critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities.

Author and psychologist, Maria Konnikova, using Sherlock Holmes as an example, suggests the following questions to aid critical thinking processes: “After setting his goals, Sherlock goes about observing and collecting data and asks, ‘What is it about this person or about this situation that will enable me to gather the data that I will then be able to use to see whether my hypothesis holds up?’ He then takes a step back, looks at the data, recombines it, looks at different possibilities and then asks, ‘Is there anything that I didn’t think of beforehand? Is my mind still open? Do I still know what’s going on? Does this data somehow make me think of new ideas? Does it make me think of new approaches – think of things that I haven’t thought of in the past?’”

Writer, Scott Berkun, also shares questions for thinking critically: “What is the counter argument? Who, besides you, shares this opinion? What are your biggest concerns? What will you do to address them? What would need to change for you to have a different (opposite) opinion?”

Leaders, train staff how to think, not what to think. Managers can stimulate fresh thinking and simultaneously train employees to think critically and creatively by asking great questions – probing questions that challenge bias and prejudice, that examine causal issues, that aid understanding of diverse opinions and that boost creative thought processes. Managers don’t have all the right answers, but they do have insightful employees that can assist in finding the best solutions.

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