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An unreasonable expectation to think


The management writer Euan Semple says he has been accused of “unreasonably expecting people to think.” I find that intriguing. What does that say about reflective thinkers like Semple? What does it say about the managers he is trying to influence?

Semple told me “I ask people at work to think more and share their thoughts more, when (so they say) they don't want to do either.”

In HR we may ask people to reflect on their management style, to think about the competencies of their staff, to have conversations about culture, and to communicate relentlessly. Are we out of line?

Why we ask people to think

It feels odd to spell out why we would ask managers to think, however the topic of this article demands that I do. It comes down to the fact that many of us are reflective thinkers and see it as a productive way to engage with the world. We read, we discuss, we probe, and we question ourselves. We know not everyone is like that—but we think they probably should be. Furthermore when we see problems we almost always presume they could have been avoided if people had spent more time thinking. We are advocates for reflective thinking.

Why people do not want to think

The first reason people do not want to think is that they are busy. Ask the clerk facing a line of twenty customers to do some reflective thinking and they will say they barely have time to breathe. Ask a manager to reflect on the qualities of their staff and they will point to an overflowing list of emails all marked urgent. And the pace never lets up. Managers do not get through the emails and then find they have a quiet hour to reflect on things.

There is another reason people may not want to think. Some people are not very good at it; they simply do not have the capability to think through complex problems. Ask them to do so and they find it unproductive and frustrating. Perhaps it is a bit like the sporty people who eagerly suggest that we should all go rock climbing more often. Perhaps it is unfair to ask everyone to engage in a lot of reflective thinking.

Why we ask people to share

The second part of Semple’s “unreasonableness” is slightly more unusual then his love of thinking. He believes people should share their thinking. This goes beyond the standard prescription to communicate often and clearly. He is in favour of blog-style communication where people simply share what is on their minds without necessarily having a particular outcome in mind. There is a big difference between communicating a formal value statement such as “We value diversity” and musing on a blog “Do you think there are some jobs here where we could employ blind people?” It is important that the latter not be perceived as an order; or a manager saying we should prioritize the blind over the deaf or some other group. It is just a manager sharing something that is on his or her mind to see if it resonates. That is the critical point for Semple; it is a strategy of tossing out ideas to stir thinking in general.

Why people do not want to share what they are thinking

The first reason people do not want to share ideas is again that they feel they do not have time. A more potent reason is a fear that it will cause trouble. Putting out something other than carefully edited comments could create all kinds of problems if people misinterpret or are offended by some musing. This is a valid concern.

What to do

We do need to be careful not to unreasonably expect people to think: what works for us may not work for everyone. However, the recurrent issue is that managers will not have time to think unless that is built into their schedule. As HR we need to promote the notion that setting aside time for reflective thinking is appropriate. Very often managers think best by talking out ideas in small groups, so setting up reflective learning meetings (to use Henry Mintzberg’s term) that stand apart from status meetings or planning meetings makes sense.

Interestingly writing down ideas in a blog is a great tool for reflective thinking. People do need to exercise some caution, however Semple is right that casually sharing ideas can surface opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed. We should not push people to blog; however we should be supportive of those who want to do so.

So what about you; are you ever accused of unreasonably expecting people to think?


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