Thinking about Thinking

the-thinker“The greatest unexplored territory in the word is the space between our ears.”
Peter Senge
True learning takes place though paying attention to feedback and reflection on one’s thinking. Donald Schon of MIT studied the importance of reflection in professions including medicine, architecture, and management. While many professionals seem to stop learning, as soon as leave school, those who become lifelong learners become reflective practitioners with the ability to reflect on their thinking while acting. For leaders, this requires both business skills, and reflective interpersonal skills.

Our minds move at lightning speed and we sometimes leap to generalizations so quickly that we do not take the time to test them. For example, have you ever heard a statement such as, “Joe doesn’t care about people?” Joe was an aloof manager, and he stared off into space when people talked to him. When he gave performance reviews, he looked away, muttered a few sentences, and then dismissed the employee. Joe’s colleagues said he did not care very much about people. Everyone assumed these observable facts proved that Joe did not care about people. Schon calls this type of generalization a leap of abstraction. No one had ever asked Joe about his behavior with people. As it turned out Joe suffered from a hearing impediment, and was painfully shy. Through coaching, Joe was able to learn how his behavior was affecting others; he gained confidence in his interactions, and formed strategies for overcoming shyness.

These leaps of abstraction are also common with business issues. At one firm the consensus was that customers buy based on price, and quality of service was not a factor. A marketing advisor urged the company to invest in improving services, but the advice was turned down. The senior leaders never tested the idea because their leap of abstraction had become a “fact” that customers buy based on price. They sat and watched while their leading competitor increased market share by providing quality services.

What can you do to avoid these leaps? Use reflective thinking:
1. Ask: What is the data on which this generalization is based?
2. Consider that this generalization may be inaccurate or misleading.
3. Separate the generalization from the data that lead to it.
4. Test the generalization directly.

Executive leaders facing the challenges of profound change may need coaching more than anyone else. Reflective thinking is a key step to bringing assumptions, and habits into the light. When coaching is provided to leaders as they acquire the skills of reflective thinking, these leaders can model that behavior for their employees. This in turn begins the new learning cycle for organizations.
© 2015, Carol-Anne Minski, PhD

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