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Decentralized leadership offers a lot of benefits, such as increased decision velocity, faster reaction times and more targeted actions and projects. Empowering teams to take greater control of their direction and decision making requires greater critical thinking in the workplace. Unfortunately, however, according to a major survey of over 60,000 managers, it is precisely critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are most absent from graduates, with 60% finding it to be lacking in new hires.

So, how can managers and organizations bridge this apparent skills gap between the need for critical thinking in the workplace and the capacity of employees to actually perform it? The obvious solution is to seek to empower the teams by improving their problem-solving skills and increasing their capacity to manage issues and their workload independently.

How to Improve Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills

  1. Assess Your Team’s Current Performance

Before beginning to implement change, it is necessary to find out where your team currently is in terms of critical thinking skills so you can better address their needs. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Matt Plummer, the founder of an online coaching service, identified four phases for assessing the level of critical thinking capacity among employees:

  • Execution: Team members can proficiently follow instructions
  • Synthesizing: Team members are capable of assessing and communicating important insights and information
  • Recommending: Employees can recommend their favored course of action and recognize its pros and cons
  • Generation: A team member can come up with plans of action or recognize consequences that are not directly related to the information

The final stage suggested by Plummer is one where team members are capable of ideating and creating comprehensive solutions to complex problems. This should be the ultimate goal for managers seeking to  entrust teams with decentralized decision-making. Helping staff progress through each stage requires hard work through mentoring and coaching, but knowing where each person is makes it easier to help them.

  1. Build Confidence Through Support

Putting the weight of responsibility on a team member to make important decisions can understandably be daunting. Nobody wants to fail or risk their status on the team, which can lead to them making a more conservative choice and sticking closely to the status quo. The conservative, playing-it-safe option might be the smart one in some cases, but it’s also important for staff to know that you support them whatever their choice is, and that their job or status isn’t at risk.

Let team members know that your door is open for them to discuss the thought process behind their decision-making, aiming to improve their overall problem solving rather than focusing on the results.

  1. Discerning the Quality of Information

Not all information is created equal, and in our modern, data-driven professional world, there’s more of it than ever, everywhere you look. One of the key skills that employees need to make higher quality decisions is to be able to discern how accurate and trustworthy the information they are using is.

A useful exercise to perform with your team in a skills building session is to take a typical project and list all the different forms of information that are used over the course of it. This could run to dozens of sources, such as anecdotal evidence, expert opinion or Google metrics. Then have the team classify that data into 1st, 2nd or 3rd order sources.

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For example, if you are considering investing in new technology, then usage statistics and performance metrics carry a higher weight than the opinion of someone you meet in a bar. But if the person you meet in the bar is Bill Gates, then that weighting can change again. The point isn’t to put hard and fast rules on what is to be trusted more than others but rather to get your team thinking about what makes information valuable and how to evaluate it in any given situation


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