Critical thinking, decision making, and solving problems are among the top desired skills in nearly any role. We want people who can identify problems, evaluate information, and draw conclusions quickly and effectively. Studies show individuals with strong critical thinking skills have higher educational and occupational attainment than those who struggle to think critically. Naturally, with such an emphasis on selecting and developing great thinkers, that should translate into highly successful organizations where problems are effectively identified and addressed.
Unfortunately, where we may lack a critical thinking problem, we often find a management problem. In hierarchical organizations and those with poorly distributed power, management takes on an astonishing volume of problem-solving responsibilities. Employees are neither trained nor empowered to think critically to identify and solve problems on their own, and therefore take all issues to their manager for help. Managers then find themselves overburdened with making reactionary, tactical decisions as they’re the team’s full-time firefighters. And because they’ve failed to train and empower their employees, they often end up solving the same problem repeatedly.
This issue is incredibly common for front-line, first-time leaders who have never participated in any formal leadership development activities. They are acutely aware of the responsibility they bear as a new manager and are terrified to make a mistake. As an overreaction to that concern, they remove as much room for error as possible and end up trying to do everything on their own. The result is a front-line leader with burnout and a disengaged, dissatisfied team.
When managers are directed to stop solving problems, a new dialogue begins.
“That’s an interesting problem. How do you think we should solve this?”
During the conversation, the employee can show they are capable of thinking critically about how they should address an issue. The leader has an opportunity to listen to the ideas, give feedback, and transfer knowledge to help the employee grow. Both parties become more confident with each other, and the manager can direct their mental energy toward the macro-level issues that deserve their attention.
Teaching new managers to coach their employees through a decision-making or problem-solving process is a critical leadership skill that cannot be overlooked. The more often the manager can engage in this kind of productive coaching dialogue, the more their employees will take ownership when they identify an obstacle. The process will take time, but the ROI will be worthwhile for everyone.
“Leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they did not think possible.” -Simon Sinek