At one time or another most leaders under perform when critical thinking skills are hijacked by external triggers associated with their personal internal hot buttons. During these moments, the ability to think straight can shut off even for the most eloquent of talkers. It is obvious to those watching and listening and it can be painful to see others go through this stress sometimes as much as when it happens to ourselves.
Everyone can have a bad day now and then, but there are moments when it’s critical to stay on point and not miss the mark. These are situations when you need to speak up or speak out about an important topic to your company’s success. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have cognitive denial that can help us recover. However denial also keeps us from learning. That’s another post though. For now, we will briefly define these five thinking skills that leaders just do not want to lose contact with – ever. Okay, that’s too high a bar. But a true leader is aware when they’ve lost one of them, and has learned ways to get back in touch with themselves so they can absorb new information that helps them grow and learn.
These opportunities occur often. Every day as a career and personal development coach, I hear how a team leader loses a firm sense of connection with their fluid thinking skills for various reasons when under pressure – could be in a meeting, giving a presentation, or simply talking to a colleague or their spouse about a disturbing event. Some people are suddenly befuddled and semi-stutter their way through thinking out loud, while others, even if they are usually fluid speakers may just keep talking but not really say anything new or logical. Some may even go on and on, not aware they just need to stop. Frankly, when leaders lose contact with their thinking skills, some need to learn how to speak up more, while others need to know how to pause and keep quiet. Both sides of these tendencies are tell tale signs of someone hanging out on a limb and trying to get back to a strong verbal footing. It is wise to know which side of the fence you fall once you’ve noticed that your thought patterns, sense of reasoning, and ability to express logically are minimized and basically, derailed off track.
This phenomenon is not peculiar to any age group or level of education. Doctorate level professionals may be even more at risk since they might think they are supposed to always know what to say at any given time. Everyone, from millennials to baby boomers and all those in between are compromised in similar ways, since this kind of hiccup is common to all people under various levels of stress and upset. The antidote is to gain more self awareness. This skill of self awareness is not relegated to any one group of individuals more than another – though some people may think so. Young people, even children, can be much more self aware than full grown adults. We’ve all seen it. The key is to learn how to be self aware at the most important moments when required to respond. It’s a response ability after all to reply, and whether we say nothing or too much at opportune times, miscommunication and misunderstanding often prevail.
It can be both interesting and beneficial to know the triggers in your outside environment that contribute to this mental stall, but for now the following is a brief and quite non-comprehensive description of the five thinking skills at risk for shut down when we least want them to.
Five Thinking Skills You Don’t Want to Shut Down
1. Degree of alertness
Everyone has various degrees of alertness that occur at different times of day. Some of this is due to tendencies and inclinations. For instance, some people are wide awake and alert as soon as their feet hit the floor in the morning, while others perk up later on the afternoon. Some people wake up with more energy right at the time others are dragging themselves off to bed. However, the degree of alertness is an interesting observation for leaders when they are under pressure to listen and take in a lot of information. For instance, have you ever been sharing a lot of information quickly with someone whose eyelids started to droop? Or have you seen someone suddenly go glazy-eyed when you mention a certain topic? Or have you been aware of your own eyes feeling super heavy and in that instant just want take a snooze? And maybe it wasn’t just after lunch or during a boring meeting; instead it was at a time you actually really wanted to know more about that topic, problem, or situation?
If you’ve seen it or experienced it, it might not be what you think. Yes, you could be tired. But in many cases it’s a sign of information overload in the unconscious and your brain needs to go internal momentarily to integrate the new information coming in. When we are faced with information that we do not expect to hear and if it is deeper than the usual surface banter, our brains need to withdraw and process to keep up. It’s like too much memory is being used up and we need to shut down to refresh and reboot. We may need a quick nap. Our degree of alertness is very connected to how we receive new information from our environment. If your boss or boss’s boss is closing his/her eyes during your presentation, it is more likely because they have spent the past few hours hearing so much that they have information overload and just can’t take in any more. Usually it’s not because you are boring, it’s that they need a break. Good leaders know that taking even a short break helps their brains cognitively process what has come in, and they can meditate or take a nap to reboot to able to keep going.
2. Use of attention
Have you ever had someone in the middle of what you’ve telling them, suddenly interrupt and point out the word you used was the wrong one? They stopped listening to what you mean and hone in on your accuracy of grammar or terms? In an instant, they react not to what you are trying to say, or mean, but try to correct you with the right terminology or proper syntax? Or perhaps they start paying more attention your demeanor, tone of voice, or even if you are looking at them or not? Maybe you are the one listening but not looking at them in the eye, and suddenly they have run off the trail of thought they were saying and now onto if or whether you are really listening. Frankly, when things get more intense, a lot of people are not able to hear and look at people at the same time. Sounds odd, but it’s true. And anyone who has dyslexia, attention delays (ADD, aspergers, etc.) definitely are compromised and have much difficulty looking at a speaker and listening at the same time. This can get them in ‘trouble’ with the person who is demanding full attention especially if /when the topic is frustrating. If the discussion is about a historically disturbing topic between them, there can be even more assumptive demands on use of attention between people. Even during good communication, we can shift our attention suddenly from the topic at hand, and find ourselves using our attention on other signals and possibly irrelevant cues. Nevertheless, when our use of attention skills are derailed, we find ourselves very keen to use our attention to look for cues full of extra meaning that may not really be there. If we start listening to our internal dialogue – our inner story – rather than using our attention to attend to the speaker for what they are trying to say, then the conversation can go haywire too. People don’t always say what they really mean, so attending to their deeper intention is very important for listeners. To do that we have to maintain an awareness of how we are using our attention skills. Attention is like a wheel that you use to drive your car and you can turn it in any direction you want. If you let go of the wheel though, it will go all over the road or drive you straight off it.
3. Accuracy of perception
Once the above two thinking skills derail, even in a slight degree, your accuracy of perception is going to flounder. Did you really hear that, or did you just think your heard that? Is that person really intending to be mean and rejecting, or did you just perceive a signal of dismissal that is putting and distancing? This is important to know and be aware of because when we are triggered and suddenly reacting to someone based on a word, a gesture or lack thereof, we are up to 90% at risk of misperceiving them. We may think we are seeing it accurately, but most of the time, are not. So, we begin to reply from a place that can be sound quite out of the blue. We’ve all seen it in meetings when two people are using terms concerning a certain problem, but they are actually reacting to each other in a way not in the least related to the problem. They can even begin to make the problem much worse than it is because as they continue, they pile up one misperception onto another. This is how a small disagreement can turn into a cold war. It’s so unfortunate and quite prevalent in work environments because many organizations have no process for managing misperceptions that lead to conflict, and those who do hire someone to teach them a process, rarely ever really use it. Even their belief about when they need to use the tool is misperceived, so they miss the opportunity and are just attending to useless misperceived data -maybe it’s important to them personally but not to the problem at hand. Often information they perceive just conveniently supports their cognitive biases. People don’t like to be wrong or even admit it when they realize they are wrong and coming out of that kind of misperception denial is a learned skill for most of us. Leaders are advised to learn it through practice because lack of accuracy of perception is at the foundation of disharmony and conflict in organizational cultures.
4. Span of concentration
This thinking skill also can make or break a conversation, a relationship, and ability to come to solutions based on thorough examination of options. Leaders need to be able to take enough time to explore different perspectives before making decisions. It is best if they really do it, not just pretend to ask what others’ think only to end up following their own previous conclusions. Most people can see right through it when the leader is un-influenced by a different perspective. A telling signal is how quickly run through of data points occur during the conversation. The span of concentration is cut short because the decision has already been made. That is one problem. Another one is the actual lack of concentration span necessary to hold two, three, or more ideas that may be opposite viewpoints in one’s mind at the same time. Many people, even smart ones, have some difficulty maintaining their concentration long enough to consider all viewpoints in the same sitting. I had one supervisor tell me that any more than four hours was too long for leaders to stay alert and clear headed enough to continue a discussion. So how do people take a full day or more offsite to do strategic planning? Answer, they don’t do it very well, and sometimes this shows by the outcomes of the plans that are missing solutions to the very obstacles presented to them over and over again by their direct reports. Whether through cognitive bias to maintain one’s viewpoint against the apparent facts, or in situations that are so historical that the long background of data needed to be taken into account in order to finally resolve an issue is too demanding on the leader’s concentration span, doesn’t matter. When results do not work to solve problems, a lack of concentration long enough on an issue is often concomitant to the problem-solving sessions. In addition to this, the executive who appears to be so scattered that people who are up, sideways, and underneath them in authority find they need to talk to them in sound bites, because that’s all the time they have to get the layout of the problem across to them. If you have a boss or leader who has a short concentration span, who cuts you off in mid-sentence, changes the topic too quickly or seems unable to focus, then you may need to draw pictures of problems for them to see the items in questions. Why? Because they may not listen long enough to get the pictures in their heads of the issues you are describing. It’s very frustrating to problem-solve with a leader cannot concentrate, or who shows lack of concentration in between your conversations. This makes it very difficult to know if or when you are getting the right things done in your job. Everyone has periods in their lives when they may be overloaded and need some downtime, but if this is habitual behavior on the part of leader, it’s time to find out how to address distractions and learn the value and behavioral skills of practicing presence.
5. Quality of awareness
The quality of your awareness is another area of personal growth for most people. The measure of your ability to think about problems, people, and processes can determine whether you are a strategic thinker or whether your wheelhouse will be relegated only to tactical details. Tactical thinking takes quality of awareness too however much less than strategic thinking does. Strategic thinking comes from a perspective where you can see the quality of relationships between points on the map, and you can even see all the roads at once that might get you from point A to point B. Tactics are more embedded in the details of what you will need to take on your trip between the points. Many people do not have ability to have both quality of awareness in strategy and tactical, so most good teams that are highly functional have a good mixture of both types of thinking skills. Most often, leaders need to be able to see the forest and count on their people to point out the trees, the obstacles on the path to getting where they want to go.
Quality of awareness is relevant to many other leadership skills as well. The ability to see the nuance, take into account individual reactions, personalities, and to have empathy in a sincere way are all part of the quality of awareness. The ability to tell stories and craft the corporate narrative, use mental models to provide learning experiences for employees is also part of quality of awareness. A mature person and wise leader eventually becomes aware of awareness, an exceptional quality usually honed over time that shapes and molds the individual’s life with principles, values, and higher purpose. You can tell when you have quality of awareness before you by the sheer patience and passion you see in the person before you. Quality of awareness can impart strength and power to people and hold them accountable at the same time, and people are thankful for it. Rather than feel judged, others feel kind of blessed to have brushed up against this quality because of the sense of expansion, not limitation about it. When this thinking skill is undeveloped or when it becomes derailed by circumstances, the absence of it from the leader who usually has it, can be palpable. But, this is forgivable as everyone is going to lose their quality of awareness at some time or another and for many different types of reasons. Once a person has had a glimpse of the essence of this thinking skill, regardless of their age, they often do not want to regress and are naturally committed to grow into their skin with this quality.
Good coaching helps leaders, managers, and their teams in every one of these thinking skills, plus more.
At the root of an individual’s and team’s ability to be creative, innovate, and push the envelope of their efforts are these five thinking skills that need to remain intact and continually grow and develop over time. When one or more of these thinking skills are compromised, there you will see disappointing outcomes. One thing for sure, you do not want to be a leader who tends to operate with behaviors that affect others’ ability to think with these thinking skills. You would be surprised how often we can unintentionally derail others and hijack their thinking or shut it down, whether we are aware of it or not. Most of the time leaders are unaware of it unless they are open to find out.
This is far from a comprehensive description of these thinking skills so important for leaders and their teams. It can suffice for now to help you notice more about yourself and others around you though.
When have you have seen members of your team, organization, or leadership be derailed in one of more of these thinking skills? Was it related to the leaders’ behavior or apparently a habitual response by an individual? What thinking skills have you seen or experienced yourself be derailed at work? What specific situations or people do you find that it may happen more readily?