Good managers can make a difference in sharpening the critical thinking skills of ‘digital natives’ used to having the answers at the click of a button.
It has become something of a trend, in government and elsewhere, to bash Millennial employees -- those 30 and younger who came of age immersed in a technological world. But rather than criticize their perceived weaknesses, a good manager can foster the type of analytical thinking and problem-solving that can be developed only offline.
Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies, has spent more than a decade studying the impact of what he calls “menu-driven thinking” on the development of those under 30. Employees in their 20s, he says, grew up with technology that helped them “think [their] way through the day.” Many feel they should be able to find the solution to every problem online. In reality, though, problem-solving is about reasoning and computers don’t reason. That’s why many digital natives get stuck when it comes to making judgments, resolving differences, persuading people, evaluating performance, juggling conflicting priorities or dealing with a whole host of other everyday challenges, according to Wendover.
The reality, he says, could be that some responsibility will fall on managers to teach young employees problem-solving skills, reasoning and critical thinking, acknowledging that these abilities are acquired through trial and error, experience, and a willingness to take calculated risks. Wendover has interviewed individuals who have been successful in nurturing these skills in employees 30 and younger and has identified some best practices. In the October 2011 issue of HR Matters Magazine, he wrote that these managers:
- Think big. Make the big picture clear to younger workers when assigning them tasks and responsibilities. Impatience can cause Millennials to feel like they are wasting their time, and by giving them a clear understanding of how their contributions fit in to the overall scheme managers will motivate them, Wendover says.
- Encourage sharing. Make Millennials feel at home approaching a problem by welcoming collaboration. Digital natives have grown up with access to friends and acquaintances 24 hours a day, and when it comes to gathering information and ideas, they turn to the Web before anything else. Not only does it give them instant information, but Wendover says the Internet also provides them access to insights and input from people who have a range of experiences. Fostering collaboration is the best way to replicate this digital experience in the workplace.
- Allow smart use of smartphones. Let employees use their phones and tablet computers productively to foster communication, research and problem-solving. Handheld devices can be disruptive at times, and Wendover acknowledges that managers must set parameters for appropriate use. But many younger workers turn to these devices to research solutions to work challenges. Managers might think that by banning or looking unfavorably on smartphones and similar devices, they’re preventing time-wasting personal calls and interactions. They could, however, be preventing Millennials from solving problems the best way they know how -- online.
- Check in often. Increase the frequency of communication and feedback to reassure younger workers they are progressing as they should. Perhaps the most common criticism of Millennials is that they need “constant” feedback and encouragement so they know they are doing a good job. But Wendover encourages managers to be careful about making broad-brush assumptions. Feedback might have to be more frequent with Millenials than with older employees, but it doesn’t have to be lengthy. One manager, for example, schedules meetings with every employee once a week for 10 minutes. Interim questions and requests for feedback are then pushed back to the regularly scheduled times.
- Foster learning through experience. With tight deadlines and schedules, it’s easy for managers and employees to move on quickly to the next task once a project is complete. But, according to Wendover, doing so can keep people from learning from their actions and consequences and, therefore, hinder critical thinking. He advises taking time for a quick debrief at the end of every project or major task to reinforce the insights that should be retained.
Wendover is offering a webinar on March 6, in advance of his upcoming book, Common Sense by Friday: Fostering Critical Thinking in a Menu-Driven World, for additional insight and advice to managers on helping Millennials move beyond menu-driven solutions and contribute more fully to your organization.
Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.
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