What to know about thinking in the workplace.
How many jobs in your company require the use of the job holder’s brain? Is that a trick question or an insult? It’s neither. I ask because in harsh reality most jobs get filled and reviewed with no systematic assessment of “brain power”. How can business be so “thoughtless”?
The answer lies in the history of American psychology and in current knowledge from cognitive psychology regarding how people think. The 20th century saw U.S. mainstream psychology shun “thinking” as a viable area for scientific study, preferring instead the verifiable domain of observable behavior. With no representation for workplace thinking it’s not surprising that the business world became biased towards observing workplace behavior, bottom-line results and MBO methodologies. Psychology offered little other choice.
It’s not that psychological testing didn’t try to create a workplace niche for the world of mental capabilities. Test builders developed intelligence tests for use in WWI inductee screening. Post-war variations were built for use by businesses. I found one built by Arthur Otis still in use by a large company as late as 1990. Beyond the “adverse impact” problem, intelligence tests’ fatal flaw was that their scores had little correlation with successful workplace performance. (See our companion website The Assessment Center for information about assessing your team)
It didn’t help matters that clinical psychology adopted a robust illness diagnostic instrument, the MMPI, which was subsequently and hazardously used to reveal the mysteries of “personality” to business management. Nor did it help when test builders claimed that paper-and-pencil tests could measure “honesty” just like a polygraph. These instruments were available to be misapplied while measures of thinking were absent. Thinking had no viable model from which tests could be developed.
Don’t confuse thinking with good measurements we have today for aptitudes, abilities, skills, knowledge, and perhaps competencies. Thinking is different! Thinking uses versatility and qualitative representational hierarchies (words, ideas, possibilities, visions). Thinking is a modifiable strategic process. Thinking gets you “outside the box”. Knowledge, skill, aptitude, experience and IQ don’t!
Workplace thinking unites the person, the position and the company. For many jobs thinking is done using words (linguistic), but for many others thinking must be done with pictures (visual) or by physically manipulating objects (tactile). There’s a growing awareness and popularity for emotional thinking in the workplace. And I can’t leave out the special need for jobs relying on thinking with tastes and smells. Each sense modality requires its own, unique assessment to gauge how effective someone is with that sense.
Thinking about thinking gets complicated. If in business, results talk and doing is what matters most, why bother yourself about thinking? My concern is the one thinking domain that every business must have: the effective thinking of leaders, managers and key players in the company.
Leaders think differently, but that’s simply a self-evident truth in business. Can “leader thinking” be modeled, measured and perhaps most important developed? Contemporary psychology has found ways to explore thinking processes, and published research on leadership thinking is emerging. Dr. Robert J. Sternberg at Yale has written extensively in this area. I would direct readers to his book, Thinking Styles (1997) and to his (2002) theory that leadership requires a balance of wisdom, intelligence and creativity, all thought-driven.
Reflecting on Sternberg’s words, I’m struck by the notion that the power of leadership thinking lies in its modifiability. Sternberg uses the term, “cognitive modifiability”, and you should review his work which includes how it can be assessed by “dynamic testing”.
As there is never anything new, I realized that my 1960s research was scratching, primitively, at the same issue: the modifying of existing cognitive structures to better handle new information. Back then, our terms for it were warm-up, learning-to-learn, learning sets, chunking and others. We were fascinated by how the human brain went about establishing structure in the midst of uncertainty. I suggest that to be the core purpose of leadership thinking.
Can we measure that? We can but we don’t seem to in most companies, perhaps because the hard work is in relating measures of thinking modifiability to valid benchmarks of a company’s successful leadership.
Our goal is not to stylize or type-cast the thinking process but rather to measure and understand it well enough so that leader-, manager- and key player-thinking can be developed to high levels of achievement. That’s how I see it. Keep a good thought.