Today's Challenge: Helping People Think

Each Friday, I respond to a question from a leader somewhere in the world. Today’s question continues the theme of the week around our role as leaders in helping people grow and develop. Today’s Challenge: How do you help people learn to think?

As I consider this question, I’m reminded of the classic axiom: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day – if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I have a strong bias on this issue - I believe people are born with the ability to think. Therefore, I really don’t like to think for people; nor do I like them to think for me.
Tragically, these skills seem to be latent in some people. Why would this be the case? One of three reasons comes to mind…

  • Thinking may not be expected of the individual.
  • Thinking may actually be discouraged by those in authority.
  • Thinking skills may be underdeveloped.

What can a leader do?
First, create the expectation for people to think! Encourage them to do so at every opportunity. Then, engage in purposeful activities to help people develop their ability to think. Following are a few ideas to get you started (I covered a couple of these ideas earlier this week).
Give people challenging assignments (without an obvious solution.) I’ve been given some very challenging assignments in my career – and I’m thankful for every one of them! Managing a difficult person, leading a struggling team, solving a complex problem - all of these helped develop my ability to think.
Ask more questions (specifically ones people don’t know the answers to.) Hard questions stimulate thought. As leaders, I believe the best leaders ask more questions than they answer. Thinking itself is a developmental activity - the more people think, the more comfortable they can become with the entire process.
Ask people to work with others when critical thinking is required. Iron sharpens iron. When people pool their individual talents, abilities, experiences, knowledge, expertise, personality and judgment, the level of thinking increases. Don’t let people work through difficult problems alone.
Provide access to pertinent information. Provide historical data and context, subject matter experts, past cases of success and failure, and even confidential information if it will inform a more thoughtful process and outcome. Give people what they need to inform their thought processes and generate great outcomes. You can’t withhold relevant information and expect profound thinking and deep insight.
Process successes and failures. Leaders can help people hone their skills by reviewing the game footage of past thinking. What worked? What didn’t work? Why? What were you thinking when you did __________? What other options did you consider? Simple questions like these, focused on real, not hypothetical examples can bolster thinking skills.
Time and energy invested in helping people think yields tremendous return for a leader. When we help people develop the most valuable skill of all – their ability to think - we multiply our influence, our impact and our reach.[GLS_Shield]

How will you help someone sharpen their thinking skills today?

If you’ve got a question you’d like to submit for a future Today’s Challenge post, please send it to Be patient regarding a response – I receive quite a few questions. Thanks for joining the conversation!


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