Many managers these days tell me that they are responsible for increasingly high-maintenance direct reports. It isn’t that these employees aren’t qualified, intelligent, or otherwise capable; in fact, the most high-maintenance are also often some of the highest-performing. The most common recurring theme is this: People just don’t think on their feet the way they used to.
What I hear from leaders is they are inundated with requests for information or resources to complete new or unfamiliar tasks. If an employee is unsure about how to do something, they either turn to their device or a more experienced colleague for answers. Often, that colleague is the person’s manager.
When it comes to the learning habits of most of today’s workforce, most experts blame changes in the emphasis of the education system at all levels: Teaching to the test has been too common for too long. It is all too rare that schools teach students to assemble and evaluate evidence, construct multiple competing arguments, understand multiple sides in a debate, untangle seeming inconsistencies, and wrestle with complexity. In colleges and graduate schools, those learning technical skills are likely to continue on that “learning for the test” pedagogical trajectory. Those being schooled in the liberal arts often err all the way on the other end of the spectrum: Young liberal arts graduates may become so convinced that “all styles are equally valid" that they have difficulty vetting information for legitimacy, use-value, and broader implications in the real world.
On the one hand, if you are someone’s manager, it is your responsibility to provide that direct report with the information and resources they need to do their jobs. On the other hand, employees must be able to work some things out at their own level to actually get the work done. Problems arise when employees adopt the habit of asking for help as the first step in completing their own work. And this is a growing habit at all levels and among all ages, not just the youngest and least experienced members of the workforce.
Think of the last time you didn’t know the answer to a question. What did you do? If you’re like most of us, you probably took out your smartphone and searched. The habits of critical thinking—pausing before responding, considering potential outcomes, and weighing options—become obsolete when so many of the answers are immediately available in our pockets.
With computers and content providers doing so much of the thinking for them, people feel less need for digging deep, puzzling, and reflecting. All of us are internalizing the expectation that learning curves are instant. Technology allows us to think of learning in small increments, filling skill and knowledge gaps as we run across them. The long learning curve is becoming a rarity.
The good news is that the habits of critical thinking are just that: habits. And like all habits, they can be changed with a little time and intention. The next time you catch yourself turning to your phone for an answer, pause. Take a moment to consider whether you have any immediate plans or solutions which come to mind. You may be surprised at the good ideas that arise when you take the time to let them.
Then, take these habit changes to your team. And the next time someone pops into your office or inbox with a problem you think they can solve, first ask them to pause and bring some potential solutions to your meeting. Once your team gets into the habit of considering before asking, many of their questions will be solved before they need that second opinion.