Critical Thinking: The Economy’s “Other” Skills Gap

A lot has been written recently about the skills gap facing today’s economy. Researchers credit several sources for this phenomenon. First, the Baby Boomers will finally retire in droves over the next decade. Second, there has been a diminished interest in the hard sciences, resulting in a deficit of healthcare professionals and scientific researchers. Third, significantly fewer young people are choosing the skilled trades as a career. This is creating headaches for contractors, manufacturers and service companies. (It is also why we pay plumbers $100 just to walk through the front door.)

But there’s another skills gap that is dogging the productivity of virtually every organization in the US. That’s the deficit of critical thinking and problem solving skills among those entering the workforce. It’s what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann calls “an invisible tax on the bottom line.” Ask the average employer. He or she will relate story after story of young workers who lack “common sense.” Translation? They do not possess the nuanced problem solving skills to perform their jobs independently.

Now, before I’m attacked by the Millennial hordes seeking my scalp, let me stipulate that there are millions in this generation who are contributing to our economy in amazing ways. But for every one of them, there is a multiple of those the same age lacking the basic thinking skills that will enable them to thrive in their jobs. Tragically this includes those both graduating from high school and college.

Responsibility for this phenomenon is shared among a number of sources: 1) The influence of digital technology, resulting in “menu-driven thinking,” defined as an over-dependence on digital cues; 2) The breakdown of the familial structure from which those in past generations learned norms and practices essential to the development of critical thinking skills and the confidence to use them; 3) Societal messaging focusing on convenience, immediate outcomes, and victimization. (“If I can’t figure it out, it’s not my fault. Something or someone else is to blame.”)

But playing the blame game will not resolve this issue. Neither will public policy. Billions of dollars have been spent on education legislation including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These have not, however, resulted in any measureable improvement in the problem-solving skills of those graduating from high school. Yes, many have been taught the principles of critical thinking. But here’s the thing . . . teaching students how to think critically does not produce critical thinkers. Compelling them to think critically does. Sadly, so much time is spent on content delivery in the average classroom, little time is left for application. Yes, they can pass the state assessments. But many struggle to thrive in the average workplace.

As much as employers might object to the added burden, it falls to them to correct this situation. This has to be accomplished in three ways:

Improve employee selection. I’ve written and spoken extensively on hiring over the years. What I hammer home each time is the use of practical applications during the screening process. Let’s face it, interviews don’t work. Compelling applicants to demonstrate their thinking skills is the closest you’ll get to ensuring an accurate evaluation of how they can perform on the job. Experiencing a shortage of applicants who meet these requirements? Hire the best you can find and be prepared to train and coach them from the get-go. At least you’ll know in advance where the work is needed.

Partner with local schools. This advice has been shouted from the rooftops for years, yet I am shocked at how few employers reach out in this manner. Want the best local people? Talk to those who teach them. If you don’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. I’ve met employers who have had great success acquiring good people just by being more present in the community. Buy a lunch. Teach a class. Serve on a workforce panel. Sponsor a contest. The ideas are endless. Over time, educators in the know will call you first when they spot top talent. (Note: In some cases there are publicly funded resources and incentives that will compensate employer for hiring and training for certain skills. These may be applicable to your needs. Local schools and agencies should be familiar with the requirements and processes.)

Train on critical thinking and decision skills from day-one. Just because they graduated from high school, college, or trade school, doesn’t mean they understand how work works. They have book smarts. You want work smarts. Some will arrive with it. Others, not so much. Assess their reasoning skills and build from there. Some will catch on faster than others. Some will possess more native confidence to try new things than others. Meet them where they are and stretch. One leader I know used to say, “Take 5’10” people and put them in 6’0” jobs. Remember, this is up to individual managers. All the training in the world won’t help if the supervision is inadequate. That’s up to organizational leadership.

Stop Multi-tasking and Boost Your Productivity

Juliette thinks she’s a master at multi-tasking. She responds to e-mails, checks Facebook, talks with passing colleagues and does her “real work” all at the same time. But she’s exhausted by the end of the day. She woke up twice last night remembering she forgot to submit a report. She almost caused an accident texting her boss about a customer issue. She’s also been nodding off during meetings. So much for being more productive.

The hard reality is that multi-tasking is physically impossible. Attempting to do so impairs your thinking and makes you less productive. So how can this be when everyone seems to believe that it’s the magic pill for getting more done? More importantly, what can you do to eliminate multitasking and make yourself more productive?

We can begin with one irrefutable fact: The brain can only attend to one thing at a time. The key word here is attend. If you are checking Facebook while chatting with a friend, you may hear what they’re saying but are not really listening. That’s why you end up saying, “Sorry, would you repeat that?” If you’re watching a video and typing a report, you may end up keying part of what the actors are saying into the text of what you’re writing. Rather than multi-tasking, what you’re really doing is “time slicing,” a term coined by Microsoft researcher Linda Stone. In other words, your attention is bouncing back and forth from one mental task to another. As your brain attempts to follow this stream of consciousness, it only picks up bits and pieces of each task. The result is incomplete memories about everything. As you attempt to manage several tasks simultaneously, you’re also draining your brain’s reservoir of energy. This is why you arrive at the office feeling energized, only to be dragging by 11AM.

Here’s the critical part of the equation. The brain is constantly learning from your choices and actions and making adjustments. Continued attempts to multi-task tells the brain to form a routine around this kind of back-and-forth energy. Over time, the brain produces dopamine, a pleasure-producing chemical that makes you feel good that you’ve accomplished so much. This, by the way, is the same chemical produced in response to stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines. In other words, you become addicted to the good feeling of accomplishing more, even though it’s an illusion. But this practice can’t go on continuously without producing fatigue and discomfort. That’s why you feel cumulatively exhausted over a period of days or weeks and unhappy when you think you’re not keeping up.

Not only does this pursuit drain your energy, it also makes you a more shallow thinker. When you’re only focusing for milliseconds on each task, the brain does not have the time to create and store the schemas essential to forming clear understandings about each activity and what needs to be accomplished. When you attempt to recall the details of a conversation, a set of verbal instructions or the insight you had about solving a problem, the brain can’t produce them because they weren’t really recorded in memory.

Of course, the constant distractions and messaging in today’s society contribute to all this. When you are immersed in a steady diet of advertisements for 30-second abs, two-minute meals and one-click shopping, your beliefs about what’s possible turn into impatience. This impatience spreads to all parts of your thinking. “If I can have 30-second abs, why isn’t there software than can produce a 30-second report?” After a while, impatience becomes a part of your psyche. This is arguably why attention spans have become abysmally short. Sadly, people who don’t take the time to concentrate fail to grasp the nuances of their daily challenges. That impairs their decision making and quality of work.

At this point, multi-taskers with the patience to read this far are thinking, “Prove it!” Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, observes that, “How well we manage to multi-task is related to the information load on working memory. Often, we can do the tasks if one of them is automatic, such as walking. However, a working memory task can never be automatic, as the information it contains has to be encoded through the frontal and parietal lobes. This is why it can be so difficult to do two working memory tasks at once.”

Daniel Levitan, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, adds “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.” Others have even shown that the cognitive losses from multitasking are greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.

Of course, many multi-taskers don’t want to hear all this for one simple reason: It challenges long-held beliefs. But here’s an overlooked truth. The most productive people within your workplace compartmentalize their work and complete one task at a time. As a result of this discipline, they benefit from the insights that come with concentration and the momentum associated with following one task to completion. They also work fewer hours, sleep more soundly and enjoy more balance. So what does it take to stop multi-tasking and become one of these productive contributors?

First, stop listening to the “multi-taskers around you. The truth is that multi-tasking is the result of a myth. Sure, you can be running copies, heating water for coffee and texting a colleague at the same time. But how about tasks requiring evaluation, analysis or creativity? Resist the peer pressure and observe those who always produce the best work. Better still, ask them how they do it. Most will be happy to share, but only for a few minutes. After all, you’re interrupting their rhythm.

How do you handle the boss who insists you multi-task? Find a way to demonstrate the difference in outcomes. The next time he or she brings up the topic, you might say, “I read this article that says that focusing on one task at a time results in better overall outcomes and helps me conserve energy. I’ve been trying these ideas for the past few weeks and it does work better.” You might also say something like, “Chuck always seems to produce top-notch work and I asked him how he does it. He told me that he concentrates on one task at a time rather than trying to juggle.” These arguments are tough to refute.

Second, alter your environment to discourage multi-tasking. Addicted to Facebook? Constantly checking CNN for the latest news? Texting all day with your spouse or friends? Set your mobile device to vibrate. Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb.” Turn off the sound on your laptop. Install a pop-up blocker. Exit your e-mail app rather than letting it run in the background. Turn your desk so your eyes don’t connect with everyone passing by.

All of this will come with a certain amount of initial discomfort. But as long as you’re gripped by the desire to multi-task, your ability to be more productive will be thwarted. Over time, that desire for the dopamine rush will be replaced by the rush you feel by producing better results. Remember, all growth comes by dealing with the discomfort associated with change. Allow yourself periodic breaks, of course, but don’t let the distractions drive your day.

Third, chunk your time. Rather than being reactive in managing your time, be proactive. Executives divide their time into short segments allowing them to clearly prioritize daily tasks. One chief financial officer I’ve interviewed divides her ten-hour day into fifteen-minute chunks. Interview a potential vendor? Fifteen minutes or one chunk. Clear e-mail in the morning and afternoon? Thirty minutes each time or four chunks. A telephone call with me? Thirty minutes or two chunks. You’re initial reaction might be, “I can’t do that. People interrupt me all the time.” But that’s what you’re choosing to allow. Put parameters on your time and most people will comply. Those who don’t will learn over time and you’ll benefit from better concentration.

The bottom line? Attempting to multi-task makes you a shallow thinker, impairs your productivity and wears you out. Developing the habits of mind to ignore temptation and remain disciplined about working on one task at a time will ensure that you’ll be the one the boss looks to when it comes time for promotions, bonuses and greater opportunities.

The Essential Secret to Good Judgment

I visited with a senior leader from a Fortune 100 company last month. At one point, he said, “My dad used to say, ‘Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.’” While I was amused by his simple characterization, it dawned on me that this glib little insight contains the essence of why some people are better decision makers than others – the judgment that comes through discomfort.

The hard truth is that many of us spend a great deal of time and treasure trying to avoid anything will cause stress. In the end though, we still end up dealing with it. Ever stew over confronting someone? The longer you avoid it, the more discomfort you feel. Ever put off trying something new because you’re afraid you might fail? Then after all that wasted time and energy, you find out it wasn’t that hard. There are countless circumstances like these.

When we are faced with an uncomfortable situation, our brain increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. In turn, we feel discomfort. For physical safety, this is a good thing. But if the discomfort is due to our perception of an uncertain situation, it can cause us to stop thinking rationally. We hesitate, worry, and procrastinate even if there is no real threat. When asked or expected to make a decision, many of us resort to doing nothing or making a safe decision rather than the one that might be most productive. Only after having dealt with the situation are we able to learn from it. By facing down emotional discomfort, we grow in our ability to make good decisions. Think about it – Have you ever grown without feeling discomfort?

So how do you learn to live with and manage discomfort? It comes down to attitude and perspective. I’ve got a good friend named Brian. He’s a retired police officer, firefighter, paramedic, ice climber, Everest climber and hang-glider. Now in his sixties, he’s into serious mountain biking. As you might imagine, he’s got a keen sense of judgment. I asked him one time where all this came from. After all, he’s just not your average Joe. “It was incremental,” he said. “When I was young, I tried one thing that was a little outside my comfort zone. When I learned that, I tried something that stretched me a little more. After a while, my perspective about discomfort changed. I realized that even in activities others considered dangerous, proper preparation and perspective allowed them to become calculated risks.”

While Brian’s risks might have been physical, the biggest obstacle to moving forward was emotional. It was not a case of ability. It was a case of volition. Would he or wouldn’t he? The same thing is true of any uncertain situation. The more benefit we attach to learning from discomfort, the more we begin to perceive this belief system as an asset to protect.

Don’t Let the Abilene Paradox Derail Your Decision Making

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A few years ago, I served on the board of a trade association. At one meeting, a proposal was made that the group print a directory of its members to be distributed to potential customers. I, along with a number of others, was ambivalent. After all, why publish a paper directory in a digital world?

Initial discussion centered on this issue. But the person proposing the idea persisted. He forcefully rebutted every concern expressed. He spoke eloquently and passionately and refused to yield a single point. After 30 minutes, we relented partially, I suspect, out of not wanting to foster hard feelings. The funds were approved. The directories were printed and half the 4000 copies were distributed to prospective customers. The response? “Why don’t you put all this on-line?” they asked. “That’s where we search for vendors.” The remaining 2000 directories? They currently sit in a member’s garage.

This is an example of the Abilene Paradox where a group of people decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many in that group. We’ve all done this, probably multiple times. But what impact does this practice have on everyday decision making? In our conflict-avoidant society, it is costing us time, money, effort and, I would argue, personal success. After all, if you relent and just go along with the gang, what are you sacrificing?

The antidote? Speak your mind. Challenge the veracity of those arguing for the proposal. Compel them to provide rational arguments. Will this, at times, cause discomfort? Sure, but so does giving in. Holding your position when you’re not convinced accomplishes more than fostering healthy discussion. It may very well discourage the group from acting on a costly or destructive proposal. Going along when you’re not convinced harms others and damages your integrity.

Are You Too Smart for Your Own Good?

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There is a tale floating around the internet that NASA spent $12 billion developing pens that would work in space, while the Russians relied on pencils. This story has been debunked by Snopes.com and others. But the point made is valid. How often do we all over- think projects and solutions to the problems we face?

Sometimes the cause of this is human creativity. Other times, it is insecurity. Still other times, it’s just plain curiosity. Regardless of origin, these endeavors can be expensive in both time and treasure. When I wrote Figure It Out! I suggested that the first question to ask when solving any program is “What does success look like?” This exercise doesn’t take long, but it compels one to stop and consider what the real outcome needs to be.

Even in writing this post, I might be tempted to turn this simple point into a 1000 word philosophical essay. Instead, I’ll just stop. You get the point.