Teaching People to Think

Leadership practices need to keep up with the realities of organisational life. There’s an increasing gap between the way employees are managed and how they want to be managed.

One cannot teach a man anything. One can only enable him to learn from within himself. ~ Galileo Galilei

With so many employees being paid to think, leaders and managers should find ways to cultivate their staffs’ cerebral capabilities to boost workplace performance. But most leaders wouldn’t know where to start.

In the work I do coaching people, I hear complaints all the time about the way managers try to help boost performance. The process begins by improving the way knowledge workers process information—not telling them what to do or jumping in to solve their problems.

Countless surveys and headlines reinforce this revelation:

  • 60 percent of workers are miserable.
  • 74 percent aren’t engaged at work.

It’s easy to see how we arrived at this sorry situation. A century ago, most people were paid for physical labour. The dominant management model was master/apprentice, with the master showing his employees how to perform their jobs.

The Industrial Age introduced systems. Process management became the dominant paradigm, with scientific analysis of linear systems for greater efficiency. Employees were trained to follow, unquestioningly, their bosses’ best-laid plans.

Over the last two decades, the most routine business tasks have been computerized or outsourced. As a result, today’s employees are increasingly hired to think. In 2005, 40 percent of employees were considered knowledge workers; for mid-level management and higher, the number is closer to 100 percent.

Modern leaders must increasingly shift management styles to reflect the needs of a more educated labour force. Unfortunately, business schools have neglected to teach leaders and managers how to improve their knowledge workers’ thinking and decision-making skills.

Strengthening these abilities is critical, according to NeuroLeadership CEO David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.

“Yet we have not significantly reinvented our management models since the time Henry Ford hired a pair of hands and wished they’d left their brains behind,” he writes.

Start a Coaching Conversation

Many employees are highly capable individuals who want to work—and be—smarter. They’re crying out for help. I hear about it all the time in the work I do.

It’s up to their leaders to learn how to ask the right questions and conduct truly engaging coaching conversations.

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution. ~ Bertrand Russell

Generations X and Y have been making major organizational contributions, albeit with different expectations from their managers. They embrace personal development, while valuing freedom and independence. They want to work for leaders who will help them fulfil their career potential—mentors who can help them improve their thinking.

As these future leaders develop, they will move from managing themselves to managing others. Their leadership potential depends on their ability to change the way they think.

Regrettably, the organizations that employ them usually allocate few internal resources to help them through this shift. It’s time for leaders to learn how to train the next generation in higher-level decision-making.

            What we think, we become. ~ Gautama Buddha

Some leadership experts have adopted the “iceberg” model to describe human performance. This metaphor suggests that some of our behaviours are visible, while most other behaviours, thoughts and feelings lurk below water.

Our work achievements are driven by how we think. Why, then, do leaders focus on what’s superficially visible when addressing employee performance? Evaluations rarely consider the factors that drive habits, nor do managers reflect on employees’ feelings or thoughts.

If we want people to think better, we must essentially let them do all the thinking. David Rock, in his book Quiet Leadership, suggests the following five-step process for establishing a coaching conversation that enables self-directed learning:

  1. Let the employee think through his specific issue. Avoid telling him what to do or giving advice. Ask questions about his thought process.
  2. Keep him focused on solutions, not problems.
  3. Challenge him to expand his thinking and stretch himself, instead of clinging to his comfort zone.
  4. Focus on what he’s doing well so he can play to his strengths.
  5. Make sure there are clear processes behind every conversation. To be truly helpful, a coaching conversation requires permission to ask questions and explore possibilities.

Have you had a coaching conversation with your manager or your direct reports lately?