How does your team think?

Blackboard with a drawing of a thought bubble enclosing a lightbulbEvery now and then, Amazon puts a really good book on their Amazon Kindle sales.

I would never have come across Time to Think: listening to ignite the human mind, by Nancy Kline, if it hadn’t showed up as a 99-cent special one day. (Sorry, everyone, it’s back up to its regular digital price of $5.99, $12.99 for the paperback, and still worth it!)

I’ve long been a proponent of encouraging people to think for themselves, voice contrary opinions, speak up when something’s going wrong or being overlooked, and, in general, speak truth to power. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from General George S. Patton, who pointed out that, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

My question for you is: do you encourage your team to think for themselves?

Or do you foster groupthink (where everyone is afraid to voice anything diverging from the group)?

Or maybe you’ve made it hard for your team to tell you the truth about what’s happening? (See my post “Does your team lie to you?” for more on that.)

What can you do to encourage independent thinking on your team? Here are a few ideas – some of which come from Kline’s book, and some of which are my own thoughts. (See what I did there? Yep. I’m thinking independently!)

Forgo the need to be right

If you have to have the last word – and it always has to be the right word – no one will bring new ideas or emerging problems to you. It’s that simple.

Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to not have all the answers. Be willing to be half right, if that’s all you can manage for now.

As Walter Isaacson puts it, “One mark of a great mind is the willingness to change it.” (He has too many accomplishments to cite; click here for his Wikipedia entry.)

Listen …

Yes, I know; this is what everyone says, and yet we all still listen only long enough to figure out what we want to say or how we want to argue.

When we listen fully (without dismissive facial expressions or body language, and definitely without interrupting), we encourage the speaker to keep going, keep thinking, keep developing their ideas. And then good things happen.

Ask good questions

Another excellent book, A More Beautiful Question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas, by Warren Berger, suggests asking “What if?” questions, and Kline agrees.

“What if?” questions open up possibility by breaking down perceived limitations and constraints.

Notice that these are not “How?” questions. “How” questions create constraints; “shat if” questions remove constraints. (I thought I’d written about this before, but I can’t find the post. Stay tuned for an article on the dangers of “how” questions!)

Allow silence

A good friend and colleague once made the point that silence can be a full partner in any conversation.

Most of us, though, aren’t comfortable with silence. We feel pressured to fill it, to say something, anything, rather than allow the silence to continue.

But when someone is thinking and we fill their thoughtful silence with our ideas, input, information, guidance, whatever – we’ve interrupted them. We’ve stomped on their thought process, and wherever they were going is lost.

Allow silence. Stay attentive. Bite your tongue if you have to.

It’s weirdly difficult

You’d think all this would be natural. After all, we want people to have ideas, think clearly, offer their opinions, tell us when something is going wrong.

But it’s weirdly difficult. Whether because, as the leader, we feel we’re “supposed” to be the one with all the ideas, or because (as hard as it may be to admit) we feel threatened if someone else raises a problem or idea we didn’t think of, or simply because we’re feeling rushed and “too busy” to pay attention, or for any of a host of other reasons, we fail to give people the time to think.

What do you think would happen if you did?