Critical thinking, decision making, and solving problems are among the top desired skills in nearly any role. We want people who can identify problems, evaluate information, and draw conclusions quickly and effectively. Studies show individuals with strong critical thinking skills have higher educational and occupational attainment than those who struggle to think critically. Naturally, with such an emphasis on selecting and developing great thinkers, that should translate into highly successful organizations where problems are effectively identified and addressed.
Unfortunately, where we may lack a critical thinking problem, we often find a management problem. In hierarchical organizations and those with poorly distributed power, management takes on an astonishing volume of problem-solving responsibilities. Employees are neither trained nor empowered to think critically to identify and solve problems on their own, and therefore take all issues to their manager for help. Managers then find themselves overburdened with making reactionary, tactical decisions as they’re the team’s full-time firefighters. And because they’ve failed to train and empower their employees, they often end up solving the same problem repeatedly.
There’s an old saying that “When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, you treat everything as a nail.”
A similar phenomenon is happening in corporate training. Heavy investment in HR technology for employee development including eLearning, Learning Management Systems (LMS) and the accessibility of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has changed the way we think about educating employees. Those changes, however, may not be in the best interest of the employee or the long-term health of the company.
After spending tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars on implementing a LMS and customizing courses, naturally, there is an expectation that managers should use that technology wherever possible. To be fair, eLearning can be a wonderful way to distribute basic just-in-time education to a large volume of employees who are geographically dispersed. It’s perceived as inexpensive (only because the significant cost of a LMS has already been paid upfront), doesn’t require travel or the cost of a trainer, and can be squeezed in between other work activities. But learning technology has its place, and it shouldn’t be the answer to every employee development need.
Over the weekend, I completed some pre-Summer cleaning in my office. This has become a bit of a coping technique for me to get through the past few volatile months. While unemployment rises and the economy dips, I can still maintain a degree of control through organizing my workspace so that I don’t add to the mental clutter. In the process of organizing old documents, I came across my 2020 Strategic Plan. Instead of tossing it in the shredder, I took some time to reflect on what a wild few months it has been.
Like any good strategic plan, there were calculated assumptions made along with contingency plans to activate if results were outside of the expected range. What we did not expect is needing a contingency plan for the whole country shutting down at once. While the original 2020 Strategic Plan is now basically a souvenir for an extraordinary year, version 2.0 of the plan is where we should focus our attention.
As important conversations about racism, equality, and equity take center stage due in part to the tragic death of George Floyd, now is a critical time to examine the progress we’ve made toward a diverse and inclusive workforce. While we’re slowly improving the degree of representation women and minorities have in senior leadership, there’s a long way to go. Despite an increased focus on Diversity & Inclusion initiatives within organizations and the implementation of policies forbidding harassment, we’ve failed to create a psychologically safe environment for a diverse workforce.
The subtle slights or verbal snubs experienced daily by marginalized groups are often overlooked as innocent errors and not given the attention they need. These are called microaggressions and they come in many forms, both subtle and more overt. Here are a few common examples of this toxic workplace behavior:
“In these unprecedented times…” How many times have you read (or written) an email with that introductory line in the past 2 months? The world has been turned upside down, and we all feel like we’re stuck in a lifeboat adrift in the sea. I used to loathe the use of the term VUCA in reference to the workplace because it was used so liberally. Was the workplace really more volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous than in previous years, or do we just have a poor memory? But it would be hard to argue against labeling 2020 of the most VUCA years in the workplace.
There’s no playbook for how to keep a workforce engaged when everything is shut down. All of the carefully crafted strategy docs for 2020 became useless overnight as we all started playing a game with ever-changing rules.
Of all the unexpected changes the pandemic has brought on, one that has captivated my attention is how awkward email introductions have become. “I hope you’re doing well in spite of these wild times” is probably the most common opening line, but the one that always makes me cringe is “I hope you’re adjusting to the new normal.” Like most people, I’m not quite ready to accept that this is actually our new normal. Perhaps that’s just the denial stage of the grief process, but I certainly hope this is a short-term experience and we’ll drift back towards “normal” soon. However, it is important to note that not all aspects of pandemic work life are negative. Sometimes you have to work to see the silver lining, but here are a few of the COVID-era work experience that I hope we retain when things return to “normal”: