Are You a Multiplier or Diminisher?
One pattern I have observed across organizations is how executives are distinguishable by the legacies they leave behind. In my prior organization, I could pretty accurately predict whether a person had ever worked directly for a specific executive, based on the thinking skills they demonstrated and developed in others. This executive had taught her staff how to think by challenging them and being transparent about her own problem solving and decision-making thought processes. She was a multiplier, and she left a legacy of strong thinkers and leaders.
In contrast, some executives left a legacy of underperforming staff and organizations. They told their staffs what to think—they developed implementers not innovators. When these executives moved on to other positions, the performance of their former offices often deteriorated, and the protégés left behind plateaued or were displaced. These executives were diminishers.
The notion of multipliers and diminishers is not limited to executives. It applies to everyone, including co-workers, friends, teachers, siblings and parents. I benefited tremendously because my father cared about raising children who could think for themselves and not just recite what they heard from others. He was a multiplier, too.
Current studies show that while the capacity of our brains continues to increase, critical thinking skills are declining. There are many reasons for this and here are a few examples: Technology is reducing attention spans with Internet pop-ups, banners flashing across computer screens announcing each incoming e-mail message, and a steady stream of text message or social media alerts. These forced distractions cause you to abruptly shift to completely different topic areas so nothing sticks. In contrast, when your mind wanders off naturally it gives your brain the space to absorb and anchor new information.
Technology, and the Internet specifically, places answers to virtually any question at your fingertips in a matter of seconds. However, there is often very little vetting of information sources. All information is treated as fact even though it may be coming from individuals who are simply offering uninformed opinions. The ease of finding answers increases the inclination to let others or computers do the thinking for you. The sheer volume of information increases a bias toward clinging to generalities, rather probing for subtle differentiating facts. Finally, in our current polarized culture, too many of us are addicted to being right—our way is the only way and minds are closed to any thinking that is not aligned with our beliefs. Simply accepting and parroting the views of other like-minded people is the lowest level of thinking.
Well-developed thinking skills open doors, elevate the quality of judgments and decisions, make you more trustworthy and influential, and can exponentially increase the capabilities of those around you. What a great way to distinguish yourself!
If you want to become smarter and help others become smarter, try out this approach:
> Seek out opposing points of views. Listen to learn rather than to confirm. Let curiosity replace judgment. Listening to opposing points of view doesn’t mean you have to embrace what they say, but you certainly want to understand their perspective because it exposes blind spots in your own thinking and sharpens your mind. The ability to hold two opposing thoughts, and comprehend circumstances where each resonates, reflects a high level of thinking skills.
> Keep an open mind, test your assumptions and be willing to change your mind. Your thinking should continue to evolve as information and insights unfold. A static mindset limits potential and jeopardizes success. If you discover the road you are on drops off into a gorge, wouldn’t you want to change course?
> Be discerning and pay attention to context—it matters. A statement made in one situation may have a completely different meaning in another situation. Treat the issue you are considering as a piece of clay you are holding in your hand. Examine it from all angles, change its shape, zoom in and zoom out, make comparisons, observe distinctions and subtle nuances.
> Look for patterns, relationships and what’s unexpected. This will enable you to see what others don’t see and create new insights, which demonstrates the highest level of thinking. Countless innovations come from connecting dots across unrelated fields and issues. For example, the idea for the collapsible baby stroller came from airplane retractable landing gear.
> Be introspective. If you made a decision that had a disappointing outcome, reflect back on the thinking that led to the decision. If you could push a reset button, what would you do differently? Would you gather more information, ask different questions, change your decision criteria?
Studies have shown those who apply the above thinking methods make significantly better quality decisions, are more innovative problem solvers, and outperform experts in the accuracy of their forecasts. Put a good thinker who is also a good multiplier on a team and the other team members become better thinkers. There is a strong likelihood that many of them will become good multipliers, too.
Become smarter and pay it forward.
It’s time to reverse the trend of declining critical thinking skills.
Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.