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Articles tagged with: Critical Thinking

Are You Solving the Wrong Problem?

The life of a leader is hectic.  Competing demands for time, complex business decisions to make, challenges that require immediate attention.  With everything coming at them, leaders naturally look for the quickest way to solve problems.  Unfortunately, in their haste to move on to the next thing, they sometimes solve the wrong problem.  The consequences can be unnecessary confusion, lost time, and wasted resources.  How to avoid this in your leadership life?  Use critical thinking skills to slow down and make sure that you identify and solve the right problem.

MSBCoach is committed to partnering with leaders and teams to identify their True North.  One's true north includes living into your values, identifying what it means to you to be your authentic self, and practicing emotional intelligence.  Leadership, executive, and team coaching are effective ways to help leaders and their teams put these principles into practice.  We also offer engaging workshops in being an authentic leader, emotional intelligence, identifying your values, and many others.  You can check out our coaching processes and our list of workshops here.

Five Ways to Prevent Downward Spiral Thinking

I was looking for a particular book for a client and during my search in my library of way too many books, I spotted the book Art of Possibilities. I read it several years ago and have often recited some of my key learnings to leaders that I thought could benefit from Ben Zander’s approach to leadership.

As I thumbed through the book, one of Zander’s key concepts caught my attention – the downward spiral. That was it – the “thing” that my client was caught in. We had been discussing for months possible solutions for a very specific issue. Although we had brainstormed several potential solutions, it seemed each of them had major flaws or “just wouldn’t work”. I realized the leader was in a constant downward spiral and I had joined him. In case you’re wondering exactly what I mean by downward spiral – it is that tendency to get caught up in “what’s wrong” and “why it’s wrong” conversations thus spiraling into negativity. And when you are in a negative spiral, possibility doesn’t exist.

So how do you stop the spiral and get unstuck? Here are five ways to avoid the downward spiral:

  • Recognize that you’re in a downward spiral. Some people don’t realize or not willing to admit that they are in a downward spiral. So a little self-awareness: if someone offers a potential solution, and you’re first thought or comment is how it will not work or the potential problems you already see, you could be in a downward spiral.
  • Stop the negative chatter in your head. When you think about a problem, examine the facts. What are the concrete facts? When we judge people’s intent, character, and abilities, facts can become distorted and overstated.
  • State the problem without assigning it to a person or particular group. Example: Joe and his team failed to meet their sales goal this month. Possible restatement: We had a sales goal of $____ and the month-end result was $____. In the first example, you can easily move into a downward spiral with a focus on Joe and the team. The second example, the facts speak for themselves and puts the emphasis on the goal. You want Joe and his team to make goal not spend energy and time trying to defend their character and abilities.
  • Have a “possibility” brainstorming session with the team. Give everyone a 2-3 day notice to come to the session with suggestions and ideas about how to resolve the problem. The key to the success of this approach is to take all ideas/suggestions without any discussion of their potential or viability. This will keep the ideas/suggestions coming and prevents those downward spiral conversations. Once you get all the possibilities listed, then you look at viability. Again, keep the conversation centered on how you could make it work. Don’t allow anyone to “shoot holes” into the ideas. Those holes will become evident if they exist during the process. Narrow the ideas/suggestions to the top 2-3 and create an action plan.
  • Once you create the action plan with the potential solutions, enroll people into the plan. A good way to create buy-in is to invite people to give frequent feedback on how the plan is going. Encourage them to speak-up if there is a need to “tweak” something.
  • Celebrate the successes along the way and continually ask for input on ways to improve the workplace.

Often leaders wait too long to address a problem or is only made aware of a problem when it has reached a near crisis. This creates a stressful environment for everyone. And a stressful environment creates downward spirals. Good leaders create environments that exudes, “We are in this together.” When leadership and associates work as a team in an environment of trust and individual value – the possibilities are endless.

Making a space for thinking…

A manager who once told me that his goal for me was to find time for 20% open thinking time in my work day. At the time, I thought this was a silly concept considering I had so much to do and not enough time to do it. I was so busy with tasks that needed to get done. Coming from a strong work ethic background, it was actually hard for me to leave an open space in my schedule. I believed that being super busy was being the super employee. Clearly, this gift from my manager would take time and practice to understand and recognize the value.

A recent psychological study by UVA and Harvard found that people would rather be doing something – possibly even hurting themselves – than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts. When faced with 6 to 15 minutes of time to think, many participants chose a mild electric shock rather than open time to think. “What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock…” – Wow! I guess this time to think is a common challenge!

Today’s technology devices allow us to fill every minute to be sure to get the most “productivity” out of our day. Instant, endless messages are sent at every moment of every day. The impact of this constant barrage of activity leaves us unable to quiet down often leading to exhaustion and insomnia. It becomes so uncomfortable to just be still.

I decided that taking time to think was a critical part of my wellness. I started with small steps. On the suggestion of a friend, I tried to pause to take a deep breath before opening the car door…easy right? Definitely No. I was miles down the road before I remembered my resolve… even after many attempts. Clearly this would be a long journey to change for me.

After much time and effort, I am pleased to say that I really enjoy open time to think. I had to try lots of different approaches to find a few that work for me…and I had to turn off the cell phone. Considering the research referenced, it’s no surprise that the focus on wellness continues to grow.

Personally, I am amazed at how the time to think can energize creativity. Creativity doesn’t just take the form of some amazing idea. For me, creativity fills the space with options to do things differently. Many creative ideas have been tossed aside but some have made a real difference in finding a better way to accomplish a task, partner with a co-worker, or solve a problem.

So what have I learned about the value of taking time to think? I’m happier and more creative. I have more patience for great conversations and future possibilities. I don’t really know when I lost my skills for enjoying thinking time, but I’m even more appreciative now that I have it back. My wish for you is some wonderful and enjoyable time to think…with no electric shocks. 

Strategy to Succeed: a practical guide to being a strategic leader


A leader without a plan or a plan without a leader simply won’t succeed. Great leaders match their passion for a future vision with the confidence and credibility that comes from strategic planning, in order to achieve that vision. To be successful in the long-term, your organization must have quality leadership and actionable strategy. So how do you help your organization define and manage an effective strategy? In this whitepaper, Barbara Higgins will provide you with practical ways to assess your organization, enhance your approach, and energize your role.


Strategy to Succeed

Preventing a Leadership Crash From Over-Correcting

Often when I read a book I find myself thinking, “Some of that was strong food for thought and some of it was a little too much for me.” When that happens, I try focusing on what is relevant so there is still a meaningful take-away rather than disregarding the entire book. Authors write to their personal extreme passion, and it’s good to remember that you do not have to agree with everything that is being said to learn something.

Leaders are very similar. We lead out of our own personal passions and values. Whether or not we are always conscious of them, they are present in our leadership. These passions and values are very close cousins to our “hot buttons".

When our hot buttons are pushed, we can have a tendency to overreact or over-correct the situation just as an author may over-write to make their point. I find that overreacting or over-correcting frequently generates results opposite of what is really expected or desired.

Allow me to illustrate… A few weeks ago, I was driving home from a meeting. I am embarrassed to admit I leaned over to pick something up (not paying attention as I should) and, when I did, I slightly went off the road. Normally this would not be a big deal… I would simply correct and get back on; however, when you combine the fact that I was in deep thought, my cruise was on about 72 mph and the startle of hitting the rumble strip, a recipe for disaster was about to unfold.

When I hit the rumble strip, instead of a gentle warning the noise of the strips is intended to give, it shook me from my deep thought and seriously startled me. I overreacted! I swerved (or should I say jerked) the steering wheel to the right. In just a split second my car swerved to the other lane, and I over corrected again to the left. It was in just a second I realized, “I think I might flip this baby.” Fortunately for me (and thanks to my guardian angels) I was able to get the car back under control. Before you know it, everything was back to normal. I settled down, regained confidence and was back to cruising at 72 mph (I was paying much closer to attention though).

Later that evening I was telling my husband and a friend about what happened over dinner. As I explained it, I realized the parallel between what happened to me and what happens when a leader “over-corrects.”

As leaders we can get lost in the moment, in our personal passions, thus losing focus on the big picture and responding without thinking or over-responding to drive our point home. I realize as leaders, being able to respond in crisis is a highly desired trait, but I also realize that there are times we cause the crisis ourselves (such as I did) from over-correcting. Either way, whether the crisis is self-induced or caused by someone else, over-correcting is rarely the answer and usually results in disaster – or near disaster, just as it did when I was driving.

Have you ever over-corrected (over responded or overreacted) as a leader? A perfect example would be, the team is working under the pressure of a deadline (now 8 days past due), a tight budget, everyone is exhausted, you just got an email that the engineering team has not been able to correct the “bug” yet, stakeholders are calling and your lead engineer just called in sick. How do you respond?

Some of you from just reading this can feel your chest tightening. I am sure your story is a little different but the stress is the same. Below are some steps to help you process through over-correcting in difficult situations. I encourage you to take just a minute to go through the questions below – they will help you to be more proactive next time and hopefully reduce the crisis response of over-correcting:

  1. Identify at least one situation where you overreacted/corrected
  2. What was happening?
  3. What hot-buttons were pushed (identify how those are related to your own personal passions and values) 
  4. What was the outcome?
  5. How would you like the outcomes to have been different?
  6. How could you have responded differently to have created a different outcome?
  7. What will you do to create different outcomes in the future?

Blindsided! Six Strategies to Protect Your Blindside

As a first time supervisor, I was given lots of advice. Much of the advice was helpful and some of it – not so much. One thing that I was told by my new boss on my first day as a supervisor was, “never blindside your boss”. I was not quite sure what he meant but I promised that I would never blindside him. I was reminded of that advice recently when I was “blindsided” by some news. My first thought was how did I not see this coming? You set the path, you’re working hard, pushing for that goal. Then – the report drops on your desk, a member of your team drops in, you get a phone call from your boss/stakeholder. You’re blindsided! Why didn’t someone sound the alarm? Where was your team?

No one likes being blindsided. Here are some strategies that will keep you protected:

  1. Constantly cast the Vision – People tend to live and work in the “here and now”. They are working on the tasks at hand – doing the next thing. Understanding and working toward a company vision is generally not a motivating factor. More concerning is that many employees don’t even know the vision of their company! Vision provides the direction and focus of the organization and should be the driver of every goal and decision. It is vital to talk about the vision, connect the vision, and live the vision for your team. Experts say that leaders should “re-cast” the vision every 30-60 days to keep their teams fully engaged. Find creative ways to remind everyone what they do every day contributes to the vision.
  2. Pay attention to fatigue, mentally and physically - We live in a world that is fast-paced and demanding. Working long hours for an extended time creates burnout, physical and emotional fatigue. Research continues to show that work weeks that extend past 40 hours are non-productive and supports poor decision making. Know the number of hours your team is putting in. Make sure that you do not project the message that working long hours is a badge of honor. Your team needs time away to de-stress and recover. Yes, there will be times where the extra push and hours are needed. If you have done a good job of keeping the vision alive and connecting it to the desired goals, the vision will become the fuel that energizes the team. And I’m betting the extra hours will shrink and goals will be met.
  3. Answer the Why - Perhaps you did a good job of stating and defining the goals. Did you take the next step? That step is discussing the “why” of the goal. This is one of the most important steps in the entire process, because once people know why they are doing something, they are more likely to do whatever it takes to figure out how to accomplish it. Answering the why question is essential to defining the importance of the particular goal. Ensure that you team knows and understands the Why of every goal. This means that you must be engaged and in conversation with your team - not just your “inner circle” folks. Encourage questions from everyone.
  4. Be aware of conflicting priorities – Once I was discussing with an employee my concern about her attention to priorities. It was obvious that she was frustrated and after a few seconds she summoned the courage to tell me that I made everything a priority. It is important that we “keep the main thing the main thing” and that your team knows what that is. Seemingly constant changing priorities are frustrating and confusing especially if they are not communicated well. Take the time to define clear purpose, values, strategy and goals. Do this often. Remember to answer the “Why” and re-cast the Vision.
  5. Be available and visible – Don’t be a “MIA” leader. People want their leader to be visible more during tough times than they do in good times. They need to see someone who is stronger than they are. They need to feel a sense of direction, a sense of security. The key is to cut back on focusing inwardly on your goals and the company, and to focus more on what’s happening around you, often in unexpected places. Why focus outwardly? Because the more you focus internally, the less peripheral vision you have, and the more signals you could miss - setting yourself up for being blindsided. By being visible and available helps to create a culture of trust. It also creates opportunity for you get information first hand and unfiltered.
  6. Celebrate the small victories - Acknowledge and celebrate small victories. This re-energizes the team and gives you opportunity to re-cast the vision. Celebrating is part of the culture of successful organizations. It provides the opportunity to recognize what individual or team achievement means to the company's success. Celebrating the small victories will drive the success of the vision. Celebrate your team! And make sure you are there to celebrate with them. And when it’s time to celebrate the big victory your team will celebrate YOU as the one who led the way.

We all have been blindsided at some time and have questioned why others let us down. In reality it is often that we let them down. I am confident if you work toward these strategies, your team will watch and protect your blindside!

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