Why managers must enable thinking

Our lives at home and work are full of distracting noise. We surround ourselves with activities and gadgets that actively discourage thinking. This lack of space for thought is often compounded by an unrelenting series of tasks and meetings in a work environment. As I continue to work on my management skills, one area of focus that has echoed for years in my brain is the need to help others develop insights from their experience. I firmly believe that this should be a primary focus for all managers. So how do we do this?

At work, “busyness” is often celebrated but can be the antithesis of productivity. Getting things checked off a list feels like progress, and it feels good to make progress. However, ensuring we’re doing the right things at the right time takes more effort and focus. It requires dedicated time to think.

When I look at my calendar, which I suspect is not atypical for a mid-senior level manager in any large enterprise, it is full of back-to-back meetings. I regularly have multiple conflicts in a day that have to be untangled. As a result, I will frequently have to choose between two meetings to attend. Meetings are scheduled so that they are usually starting at the “top of the hour” and finishing at the “bottom of the hour”. In other words, each meeting fills the half-hour or hour-long slot it has been scheduled to with no space between.

Our limited brains, specifically our prefrontal cortices, do not cope well with this kind of schedule. There is no time to organise thoughts before or after meetings because we go straight from one context to another. In addition, we will never have time to reflect during the day unless we intentionally make parts of our calendar inaccessible to others – something which requires deep intestinal fortitude to maintain in a meeting-heavy culture.

Once we’re in a meeting, it is often unclear why we are all gathered. This is because meetings are rarely run with any clear structure or agenda. Only a few attendees will speak in many cases – usually the most senior and/or most opinionated. The result is that many people, often with great ideas, will never get to share them or think them through out loud with others. If someone does bring up a topic for discussion that is unpopular or not fully thought through, they may become targets for hostile questioning or commentary. This causes people who are uncertain of their status to disengage. Many of the worst meetings I’ve attended have had many individuals multi-tasking while one or perhaps two individuals “lecture the crowd”.

So in two major areas of corporate life, scheduling and meetings, it is increasingly difficult to think. It sometimes feels like we’re discouraging independent thought. People will be less likely to bring ideas forward because they will not have the confidence or a safe platform. The result for companies that have this kind of culture is reduced innovation and productivity.

Back to my original question – what can we do to enable our staff to think? We can encourage our teams to block out time on their calendars for focussed work, including thinking. One way to build this into the culture is to demonstrate the behaviour ourselves by creating protected spaces on our calendars. As described in Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think”, we can establish thinking partnerships between team members. And we can make meetings safe spaces to think aloud by encouraging everyone to speak without interruption for an allocated period and by using constructive, open-ended questions to help people tease out their thoughts.

Developing insight with others is a critical part of my coaching practice and many others. The idea of “manager as coach” does not sit entirely well with me, but the idea of being a manager who encourages other people to use the gifts they have been given is. If you are a leader or a manager of people, I believe it is your responsibility and mine to help others make the best of their skills. That includes exercising their ability to generate insights at work. Structured thinking is like any other exercise that requires practice. A large part of our job should be to ensure that our people can practice and develop insights that will benefit them and our organisations.

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