Menu Driven Thinking
Managing Technology-Dependent Employees
She spends most of her time staring at the screen in front of her. Whether it’s the keypad on her handheld or the keyboard on her laptop, her fingers move at lightning speed. She sends more than three thousand text messages per month. She can manipulate a spreadsheet and purchase an item on Amazon.com while e-mailing her mother and maintaining a conversation with you. By the way, she also serves as de facto tech support for many of those around her.
At the same time, she seems to struggle with what veteran co-workers consider common sense.
She asks endless questions after being assigned a task. You find yourself explaining what she is supposed to do in excruciating detail. On top of this, she seeks constant feedback as if she has little confidence in her skills. If you’re unavailable, she’s been known to stop working on an unfamiliar task and wait to ask for clarification rather than take a chance that she’ll do the wrong thing.
“How,” you’ve wondered, “can she be that skilled with computers and be unable to work without constant support and instruction?”
Welcome to the world of the menu-driven thinker.
As digital technology has flooded into the workplace over the past decade, the urge and, in some cases, the demand to use technology as a solution to everything has become all consuming. Journalist Mark Prensky noted several years ago that those in today’s workplace can be divided into two groups, digital immigrants and digital natives.
While some would have us believe that all answers lie behind the click of a mouse, most of the world’s decisions are still reliant upon one’s problem solving skills based on the trial and error of experiences past.
Digital immigrants are those who came of age before the introduction of digital technology. They developed a plethora of manual skills for navigating everyday work and life. While technology has replaced many of these manual tasks, those skills still reside in the back of their minds as a resource in case they’re needed.
Digital natives are those who came of age with technology in their homes, schools, and seemingly everywhere else. Because of this exposure, most digital natives appear to have an innate understanding of software architecture, enabling them to learn unfamiliar applications almost instantly. But should the power fail, the server go down or the Internet freeze, they are unable to resort to the manual skills developed by their older co-workers.
This, of course, presents managers and peers with a host of challenges when navigating the daily tasks one encounters on the job. While some would have us believe that all answers lie behind the click of a mouse, most of the world’s decisions are still reliant upon one’s problem solving skills based on the trial and error of experiences past. When one comes of age learning that most of life’s decisions will be presented in the form of choices on a screen, it can be intimidating to venture into the unfamiliar territory of critical thinking. And therein lies the rub.
So how can managers best supervise the menu-driven thinkers populating today’s workplaces?
It begins with critical thinking. While much has been written over the years about the subject, rudimentary critical thinking can be reduced five simple steps:
1) Clearly define the challenge;
2) Determine what resources you have available;
3)Develop and consider your options for resolution;
4) Choose the best option and act on it; and
5) Learn from the outcome.
With these five steps being the mechanical end of critical thinking, an equally important part of the equation is the volition to act.
Menu driven thinkers may be able to demonstrate their skills at critical thinking, but their experience in dealing with real-life outcomes may be limited by the lack of times they have been allowed, or perhaps forced to make a decision or take an action without pre-determined knowledge of the consequences.
So how do you create a regimen of problem solving within your menu driven thinkers?
Simply teaching them the elementary steps to think critically will provide them with a framework to use when uncertainty about what to do paralyses their sense of problem solving.
Here are four suggestions for fostering the critical thinking skills and confidence they need when facing everyday decisions at work:
1. Teach them critical thinking
We might assume that those with high school or college educations would have been taught the rudiments of critical thinking. This is simply not the case.
Most of formal education is based on developing content knowledge and then regurgitating it in sterile environments such as tests and term papers. Few of those who join the workforce after these experiences have much experience with applying what they have learned in the real world. If most of this learning has been acquired in the context of a menu-driven environment, they have little experience with applying a critical thinking framework to the work at hand.
Simply teaching them the elementary steps to think critically will provide them with a framework to use when uncertainty about what to do paralyses their sense of problem solving. While there are a plethora of resources available for teaching these principles, managers should be careful not to over-complicate the process.
Having spent years learning theory in order to survive formal education, many of these menu-dependent employees will be tempted to immerse themselves in critical-thinking principles rather than putting them to good use.
2. Withdraw your constant support
While a manager is supposed to provide direction and encouragement, at some point this can turn into a destructive form of enablement.
Every person who supervises people has, at some time or another, resorted to doing the work themselves rather than taking time to train someone a second or third time. It is simply more efficient in the short term and can also avoid confrontation.
The long-term consequences of this, however, are employees who are conditioned to ask for help at every turn rather than developing the discipline of self-initiation. Couple this conditioning with the habits of menu-driven thinking and it is no wonder that we are seeing an increased incidence of employees who simply stop working when they are not told exactly what to do.
We all make mistakes that cost time and money. But with experience, we grow wiser.
3. Allow room for failure
Nothing tends to focus the mind like failure.
While there are degrees of this, of course, too often it is tempting to simply let people off the hook rather than forcing them to learn through trial and error.
We all make mistakes that cost time and money. But with experience, we grow wiser.
The manager who chooses to save every situation simply postpones the inevitable development of a life skill essential to surviving, if not thriving, in the real world. Consider how many times you have bailed out people who hesitate at the least little challenge. Forcing them to work their way through the uncertainty may be the best thing that ever happened to them. It will have a positive effect on your productivity as well.
Does this take a bit of courage on your part at times? Yes, but how else will those you supervise mature in their confidence and competence?
4. Reinforce the learning and growth
Periodically assess the progress being made as your menu-driven thinkers grow out of their dependence on choices for every conceivable decision. Praise the actions they take and the decisions they make regardless of the outcome.
Look for opportunities to coach these individuals when they are faced with uncertainty. When something does go wrong, work with them to determine where the mistake was made and what they can do differently in the future. Review with them the growth you’ve seen in their confidence, and skills in taking initiative. Let them know that you’ve got their back, but in exchange for this you expect them to think for themselves.
All of this takes time, of course.
Changing the behaviour of individuals who have grown dependent on a consistent diet of menus to make even the smallest decisions is an evolving process. While practices need to be altered, so do mindsets. But the time to begin is now. After all, solid critical thinking skills and the confidence to use them are essential to thriving in both the workplace and the rest of one’s life.
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Image courtesy Jordan McQueen@unsplash.com. This article was originally published in the April 2011 issue of HR Matters Magazine (now known as Accelerate Magazine).