Coaching Conversations: Teaching People to Think

Leadership practices need to keep up with the realities of organizational life. There’s an increasing gap between the way employees are managed and how they want to be managed.

One cannot teach a man anything. One can only enable him to learn from within himself. ~ Galileo Galilei

With so many employees being paid to think, leaders and managers should find ways to cultivate their staffs’ cerebral capabilities to boost workplace performance. But most leaders wouldn’t know where to start.

In the work I do coaching people, I hear complaints all the time about the way managers try to help boost performance. The process begins by improving the way knowledge workers process information—not telling them what to do or jumping in to solve their problems.

Countless surveys and headlines reinforce this revelation:

  • 60 percent of workers are miserable.
  • 74 percent aren’t engaged at work.

It’s easy to see how we arrived at this sorry situation. A century ago, most people were paid for physical labor. The dominant management model was master/apprentice, with the master showing his employees how to perform their jobs.

The Industrial Age introduced systems. Process management became the dominant paradigm, with scientific analysis of linear systems for greater efficiency. Employees were trained to follow, unquestioningly, their bosses’ best-laid plans.

Over the last two decades, the most routine business tasks have been computerized or outsourced. As a result, today’s employees are increasingly hired to think. In 2005, 40 percent of employees were considered knowledge workers; for mid-level management and higher, the number is closer to 100 percent.

Modern leaders must increasingly shift management styles to reflect the needs of a more educated labor force. Unfortunately, business schools have neglected to teach leaders and managers how to improve their knowledge workers’ thinking and decision-making skills.

Strengthening these abilities is critical, according to NeuroLeadership CEO David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.

“Yet we have not significantly reinvented our management models since the time Henry Ford hired a pair of hands and wished they’d left their brains behind,” he writes.

What’s it like in your work? I’d love to hear from you.


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