Creating a Safe Environment for Critical Thinking to Flourish

Critical Thinking Creates Results

“I can’t trust my people to make big decisions.”

“My employees aren’t engaged.”

“No one cares as much as I do.”

Coaches and consultants hear these frustrations often. These are symptoms of a complex problem that has a simple solution. Here’s a true story.

Evan, an executive in professional services was dragging his feet when it came to producing a set of weekly metrics for Joan, the CEO. Joan was frustrated, constantly having to remind him about it. They were late, sometimes incomplete, and the necessary oversight took away from her priorities and caused stress.

Joan was supervising Evan–not managing.

Let’s define supervision as making sure someone does what they already know they should do. Supervision looks like:

  • “Remember, I need that report every Monday by noon.”
  • “This is the third time this month this report is late, please don’t let it happen again.”

“Hey, it’s 11 am and I want to remind you I need that report soon.”

Supervision is commonly accepted as “the way it is” even though we can feel it’s a waste of time and energy. Generally, neither managers nor their employees enjoy supervision. It feels like babysitting. Management, on the other hand, we can define as supporting people to learn something new about themselves. In this case, the opportunity is for the executive to discover why he’s dragging his feet. To support this, Joan asks questions like:

  • “What do you notice about your relationship to metrics?”
  • “What’s challenging about this for you?”

“What ideas do you have about what needs to happen for these to be on time?”

This shifts the focus from the content of the deliverable to the context of the way the employee is relating to the work. It invites them to think critically about what’s happening.

Joan saw the supervision dynamic needed to change. Using incisive questions to stimulate Evan’s critical thinking, they explored his relationship to structure, timeliness, and other themes. After a few conversations, Evan had an epiphany: he didn’t actually like these particular metrics! He didn’t feel they represented his department effectively. And Evan learned something about himself: structure he doesn’t like he unconsciously tends to avoid, rather than address directly.

Inspired by the discovery, he spent an entire weekend creating new ones and presented them to the CEO on Monday. They both agreed they were better, and they were never late again.

You can hold people accountable using supervision, and even though you may get compliance, the result is less responsibility and engagement, not more. Open-ended questions like the above, which encourage people to do their own critical thinking, support people to learn about themselves. They create a natural sense of ownership because they’re no longer being told what to do (which nobody likes). They’re invited to rise to the occasion.

Harvard-trained psychiatrist David Brendel said “Open-ended questions promote confidence and trust in the relationship. The direct report receives an implicit message that his or her thoughts are valued and respected.”

But it takes more than just open-ended questions to foster critical thinking in a culture. Psychological safety is a key condition that allows this to happen.

Psychological Safety as a Prerequisite for Critical Thinking

If you ask 1,000 people if they think critically, of course, the vast majority would say “Yes.” Unfortunately, the research shows otherwise. Science teaches us about phenomena like the Backfire Effect and The Dunning-Kruger Effect that dramatically undermine our ability to think straight the more emotionally charged the issue is.

While we all enjoy being comfortable, leaps in critical thinking often happen when one realizes they’re wrong. In a work environment, this leaves a manager with a difficult choice: 1) Work around deficits of critical thinking and try to get results through employees as they are, or 2) challenge deficits of critical thinking and risk hurting people’s feelings.

The first choice is supervision, the second is management. You can see why so many people choose supervision because it’s easier and more comfortable. But as in so many areas of life, that comfort comes with a price: wasted resources and compromised results. It’s not an exaggeration to say that supervision, as opposed to management, is one of the top five root problems of all businesses. Similar to when a business is carrying too much debt: it would be profitable if not for the artificial expense of the debt service. Supervision is a dynamic that can drag down an entire organization as it invisibly burns through its fuel sources of time, money, and energy.

In Project Aristotle, Google discovered five key dynamics that create a successful team. The most important factor which is the foundation for all the others is psychological safety: the ability for people to feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other. We all care a lot about how others see us. It turns out the safer people feel emotionally, the more likely they are to admit mistakes and take risks. This safety also translates into employee retention and the ability to utilize diverse ideas.

When people feel safe to take risks and admit mistakes, they’re open to having their thinking challenged. This is the environment where management works, and critical thinking can evolve and thrive.

How to create psychological safety is a larger question, of course, but it begins by making it important. Google found that kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week increased psychology safety metrics by 6%. This is a simple and actionable place to begin.

It is both ironic and tragic that most leaders misidentify their management problems. They see the symptoms in a lack of revenue, insufficient cash flow, absenteeism, employee turnover, customer dissatisfaction, lack of innovation, and nearly anything else. Like a house built on a faulty foundation, it’s difficult to directly experience that problem while you fix symptoms like pooling water, crumbling concrete, and warped floorboards. But if you don’t address the invisible foundation issue, one day you may not have a house at all. Management is almost always where the problem begins, and therefore where it inevitably must end.

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