Bosses Flunk Critical Thinking

I have commented previously (here, here, and here) about how bosses want new hires to possess good critical thinking skills. But, due to a lack of critical thinking, bosses mistakenly ask for critical thinking when what they really want is people who can solve problems.

It looks like bosses did not learn much about critical thinking in college or graduate school. While critical thinking should be part of problem-solving, problems can be solved (albeit poorly) without critical thinking. That is what most bosses want. The phrase, “Just fix it; I don’t care how you do it,” sums it up nicely.

Most bosses want young people who have been trained by their professors in how to solve small problems within their work area, to relieve burdens on management. What they have difficulty realizing is that many of these problems are created by bad policies and poor management decisions. New hires, therefore, are expected to clean up after management’s messes, among their other duties.

Most bosses do not want young people to think critically about the their decisions and speak truth to power. New hires will get in trouble for doing that. Bosses do not want young employees (or anyone else) to critique their decisions, because they would find many (most?) decisions are made with a lack of evidence, misinterpretation of evidence, the use of illogical thinking, conformation bias, closed-minded rationalizations, insufficient analysis, etc.

In Lean management, employees are taught to recognize and correct problems using structured problem-solving processes such as PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen, all of which are derivatives of the scientific method, which, of course, require critical thinking. The difference is that organizations whose leaders understand and practice Lean correctly, foster a no-blame and open communication environment so that any employee, new or not, can speak truth to power. And, management takes responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills through daily coaching.

Professors, such as myself, who teach PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen give students the problem-solving skills that employers want. The difference is that most leaders do not understand and practice Lean correctly (if at all), and foster a blame environment that shuts down information flow so that employees cannot speak truth to power. New hires learn this quickly. Predictably, management does not take responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills. Employees must develop it themselves, if they wish to do so.

Professors can teach students the problem-solving methods that managers in industry want, but it is up to managers to develop that skill into something more than rote problem-solving devoid of critical thinking.

3 thoughts on “Bosses Flunk Critical Thinking

  1. Nancy Kress

    YES YES YES! Many bosses do not allow staff time for the critical thinking required to solve the problems that management likely created. I read an article recently that noted that employees are rewarded for fire-fighting, but almost never for the problems that didn’t happen.

  2. RalfLippold

    Right on spot – experienced this with bosses around various organizations. Mostly bosses are Alpha Males, sure about their actions who don’t like counter voices (even questioning in a humble way). A Lean Thinker, critically thinking, and putting questions out of her/his mouth, for sure then looks like a troublemaker.

    The whole thing worsens when the culture of the organization is valuing heroes and the “heroic myth” a lot, meaning that when problems are wiped out the very last minute before the “real” trouble occur these trouble eliminators are congratulated.

    The critical thinker however who had brought up the problem issue before it really became a problem for the organization gets devalued, and even diminished, her/his thoughts/ideas/advice cut out as there “obviously” is no problem.

    What is missing up and down the hierarchy is a trained willingness, and courage to see and understand the dynamic patterns of impacts in the organization due to policy action, changed processes or for example raise of production volume. From what I have learned the hard way it is the systems thinking that is lacking in a “lean world” that focuses on specific issues to improve instead of seeing “the whole picture” (as it evolves).

    Thanks Bob for bringing this topic into the conversation!

  3. Daniel

    Right on… What this shows is that we are in dire need of “managerial courage” so that we can face problems for what they are and not a person’s problem. Thus, critical thinking from these bosses focus on who is the problem so they can fire them.


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