How to Develop Your Employees’ Critical Thinking Skills

Many managers run the risk of getting overwhelmed when they fail to delegate the task of problem-solving. It seems like a quick fix, but solving your employees’ problems for them isn’t helping them grow or learn to handle situations themselves.

The reality is, you can’t always be there to put out the fire, nor should you be. Yes, as a manager part of your duty is to resolve escalated issues, but your team should be the first line of defense for conflict resolution, not you.

Although critical thinking isn’t a skill everyone is born with, it can be developed in your reports just like any other skill. Here are eight strategies to help your team troubleshoot issues on their own:

Mandate a Question Checklist

Think about the list of questions you ask yourself when solving a problem, then give these questions to your employees as a checklist. The nature of the questions will vary depending on the type of work, but could include some of the following examples:

  • What are the possible outcomes of this situation?
  • What is the best outcome? The worst?
  • How does this situation affect the customer or project?
  • Who else needs to be aware of this situation?
  • What assumptions am I making about the situation?

The questions should provoke employees to view the situation from a different perspective. Ideally, employees will eventually learn to start asking themselves the necessary questions without the checklist.

Have Team Brainstorming Sessions

Another way to beef up your team’s critical-thinking skills is to practice brainstorming. Brainstorming promotes creative thinking which can help your team approach challenges from a different angle. Once a week or once a month, have a  meeting with your team to hammer out problems as a team. Each team member can bring a challenge they’re currently dealing with, or you can bring a relevant case study for your team to discuss.

To make the most of these sessions, it’s important that your team understands that the goal is more to brainstorming ideas and less about finding the perfect idea. The attitude should be that no idea or question is stupid. If you frame it as “just spitballing”, your team is more likely to engage and be creative in their responses.

Require a Possible Solution Before Assisting

If an employee comes to you with a problem, instead of just giving them the answer, ask them, “What do you think the best solution is?” Listen to their response, and ask follow up questions to make sure they are thinking through the outcome of their suggestion.

If you do end up needing to give them the solution, take the time to explain how you came to your conclusion and why your action plan will produce the best outcome. That will give your reports insight into your thought process and help them emulate it the next time they’re faced with a similar challenge.

Teach Communication, Discourage Assumption

Assumptions about a situation or problem are the number one reason why things are missed or handled incorrectly. Quite often, these assumptions are a result of miscommunication, either with clients or colleagues.

Teach them to question their assumptions and confirm all the facts before taking action. Instead of rushing into a response, employees should take a couple minutes to define their assumptions and clarify anything that isn’t 100% verifiable.

Implement Fun Weekly Challenges

Encouraging your team to think out of the box doesn’t have to be boring! Try weekly lateral thinking challenges which can help your team develop their strategy skills while bringing a bit of fun into the office.

These challenges could be visual puzzles or logic-based riddles. Spark interest in your team by offering a small reward to the winner, such as a free specialty coffee or $5 gift card. (Gamifying the experience this way also helps to boost employee morale!)

Author and innovation guru, Paul Sloane, has a published two lateral thinking puzzle books that are perfect for sharing with your team: Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, and Remarkable Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Encourage Workplace Wellness

Physical and mental health are equally important in a well-rounded employee. Encourage employees to take coffee breaks and insist that the team take their lunch breaks. Science shows that even short breaks can increase mental performance.

Physical activity is also shown to boost cognitive performance. Encourage walking breaks or better yet, take your next team brainstorming session outside for a “walk and talk” around the block to get the oxygen and ideas flowing more easily.

Allow Failure to Happen

For some managers, it is tempting to micromanage their employee’s every move to ensure the success of the team. This is not only an ineffective management tactic, but your reports will feel your lack of confidence in them. Worse still, they won’t ever learn how to handle the problem themselves. Sometimes, you have to let an employee fail or “learn the hard way” in order for them to improve.

When a report does fail, avoid shaming, belittling, or getting angry. Instead, calmly review with them where it went wrong and why, and get their feedback on what they think is the best way to recover from the mistake. This will not only help them to avoid future mistakes but teach them to how to recover from mistakes as well.

Separate Result from Process

Not everyone is going to be as effective following your processes. They may develop their own unique way to tackle a problem, and that’s okay. “Your way” isn’t necessarily the only way. Your employee’s approach to a problem may be different than how you taught them, but if it yields the same positive outcome then that is what matters. In fact, don’t be surprised if you learn a thing or two from observing their approach to troubleshooting!

The Bottom Line

Not all work problems are equal, and individual team members will excel more at solving certain types of problems more than others. Part of being a good manager is learning your team’s strengths and weaknesses, understanding their thought processes, and then guiding them accordingly. It can take a lot of time and practice, but with the right strategies, you can help your team grow into problem-solving superstars!