critical thinking: 5 ways to increase your team's capacity to think

Critical Thinking: 5 Ways to Build Your Team’s Capacity to Think

“Karin, TRUST me. I would LOVE to delegate more of these decisions and loosen up the reigns, but then I go out into the field and find all this crap. I just don’t think we have the critical thinking skills we need for success.”

Have you ever said those words?

Yeah, me too.

Can you imagine the freedom in knowing that your team will use the same (or better) “common sense” as you when the going gets tough?

I love this simple definition of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.

So how do you build THAT?

5 Ways to Build Your Team’s Capacity to Think

Critical thinking is not a gene. Yes, it comes more naturally to some, but it is teachable (much of the time). Here are a few ways to get started.

1.  STOP being the hero.

It’s hard. Who doesn’t love being superman? Particularly when you know EXACTLY what to do. It’s even harder if your boss is a superman too and you’re their go-to guy.

There’s a certain rush from jumping in and doing what must be done at exactly the right time. And it can’t hurt, right? The worst you’re going to get after your superman intervention is a THANK YOU and a developmental discussion six months from now, saying you need to build a bench.

But here’s what we hear offline. “She’s great. But she’s a do-er. I’d put her in my lifeboat any time. But her team is weak.”

Great leaders don’t have weak teams.

Great leaders take the time to slow down just enough even during times of crises, to bring others along and help them rise to the occasion.

Great leaders aren’t heroes, they’re hero farmers. 

2. Connect What to Why (more often than you think is practical or necessary.)

Yes, you can overload your team with TMI (too much information), but the truth is I’ve NEVER heard a manager complain that their boss overexplained “why.”  It’s impossible to have great critical thinking if you’re not connected to the big picture (including key challenges).  If you want your team to exercise better judgment, give them a fighting chance with a bit more transparency.

3. Expose them to Messy Discussions.

It’s tempting to think we must have it all figured out before wasting our team’s time. But if you’re really working to build leadership capacity, it’s also important to sometimes bring your folks in BEFORE you have a clue. Let them see you wrestle in the muck and talk out loud. “We could do this … but there’s that and that to consider … and also the other thing.”

4. Hold “Bring a Friend” Staff Meetings.

An easy way to do #3 is through “Bring a Friend” staff meetings. Once in a while, invite your direct reports to bring one of their high-potential employees along to your staff meeting. Of course, avoid anything super sensitive, but be as transparent as possible. Every time I’ve done this, we’ve had employees leaving the meeting saying, “I had no idea how complicated this is,” and “Wow, that sure gave me a different perspective.”

5. Ask Strategic Questions (and encourage them to go research the answers.)

  • Why have your results improved so substantially?
  • What was different in August (or whenever you saw a change in pattern)?
  • What evidence do you have that this strategy is working?
  • How does this compare to your competition?
  • What’s changed since implementing this program?
  • How do you know it’s working?
  • What are the employees saying about the change, how do you know?
  • How do you know this is sustainable?
  • What would a pilot teach us?

Your turn. What are your best practices for building critical thinking capacity?

mistakes to avoid in your town hall meetingSee Also: 6 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Town Hall Meetings 

How to Help Your HR Team Be More Strategic

Bad advice don't bring a problem without a solution

One Awful (but Common) Leadership Practice and What To Do Instead

“Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.”

It’s nearly a leadership cliché:

You’ve probably been on the receiving end of a harried manager barking these words at you. You may even have said them yourself.

I’ve delivered many keynote programs and workshops where frontline leaders in the audience approach me afterward and proudly announce how they are in the habit of telling their people not to bring a problem without a solution.

Some of them even mean well. They believe that they’re helping their people. Others just want people and their problems to go away. They’re usually surprised at my response:

Please stop.

Unintended Consequences

Here’s the thing, if you’re in a leadership role, yes, your executives can fairly expect you to think things through and bring solutions (particularly when you’ve got bad news – see the D.A.R.N. Method). You’ve got the experience and responsibility to be able to own your problems and look for answers.

However, your employees are a different audience. Telling employees not to bring a problem without a solution is careless and lazy.

They may not know how to problem solve. They may lack critical thinking skills. They may not have the training or information they need to arrive at reasonable solutions.

The problem with telling people “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is that when they don’t know how to come up with solutions, you’ve essentially just told them, “Don’t bring me a problem.”

Now you’ve got people mucking about with problems they can’t solve and that they won’t bring to you. The problems fester, productivity and service decline, and everyone is frustrated.

There’s a better way.

Help Employees Learn to Think Critically and Solve Problems

The answer is definitely not to play the hero and jump in with answers, nor is it the old-school “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution!” The immediate problems might get solved and work continues, but next time an issue comes up, your team still can’t figure it out for themselves and, worse, you’ve now taught them that if things get difficult, you’ll just figure it out for them.

Yes, you’re the hero, but say goodbye to your own productivity!

What they really need from you in these moments are your questions: the kind of questions that focus on learning and the future. Questions that generate ideas and solutions.

Examples include:

  • What is your goal?
  • What did you try?
  • What happened?
  • Do you need a specific skill or tool to be able to solve this?
  • What would you do next time?
  • What do you think will happen when you try that?
  • What will you do?
  • Super-bonus question – keep reading to learn this powerful tool!

Assuming that your staff have the basic skills, training, and materials they need to do their jobs, this conversation doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes. For a complex project, it might take the time required to drink a cup of coffee, but it shouldn’t take much longer than that.

Now, you might be wondering what to do if the person replies to one of your questions with, “I don’t know.”

Don’t despair – it’s time to use the super-bonus question. When a team member says, “I don’t know,” most managers will then jump in and supply the answer, but not you. There’s a better way.

“I don’t know” can mean many things. Rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.

More often, “I don’t know” translates to:

  • “I’m uncertain.”
  • “I don’t want to commit before I know where you stand.”
  • “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
  • “I don’t want to think about it.”
  • “Will you please just tell me what to do?”
  • “I’m scared about getting it wrong.”

Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue – to ease the person through their anxiety and train their brain to engage. This is where the super-bonus question comes in.

With one question you can re-engage them in the conversation and move through “I don’t know” to productivity.

When someone says, “I don’t know,” your super-bonus question is: “What might you do if you did know?”

Before you judge this tool, try it.

Try it with your children, with your co-workers, or with the person next to you in a coffee shop. In any conversation where someone says, “I don’t know,” respond with a gentle, “What might you do if you did know?” and watch what happens.

It’s like magic.

The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas (often good ones) brainstorm solutions, and move on as if they were never stuck. It’s amazing and hard to believe until you try it.

The super-bonus question works because it addresses the source of the person’s “I don’t know.” If they were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off by creating a hypothetical situation: “If you did know…” Now they don’t have to be certain or look for your approval and they become free to share whatever they might have been thinking.

If they hadn’t thought about the issue or didn’t want to think about it, you’ve lowered the perceived amount of thought-energy they must expend. You’re not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversational “What might you do…”

Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks. When you do this for your team, you train their brain to engage, to push through their ordinary blocks, and increase their performance. Ultimately, they will be able to have these conversations with themselves and will only need to bring the very serious issues to you.

You’ll know you’re succeeding in asking healthy questions when a team member tells you: “I had a problem. I was going to come and talk it over with you, but then I thought, you’re just going to ask me all these questions. So I asked myself all the questions instead and I figured it out.”

Celebrate those moments and encourage them to start asking those questions of the people around them. You’ve just increased your team’s capacity for problem-solving, freed up time to focus on your work, and…you’ve built a leader!

Your Turn

Before you bark “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution,” remember that when a team member has trouble thinking through a problem, good questions are your best solution.

Leave us a comment and share: How do you develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in your team?