My good friend Dennis is going through a life a change. It is not the first one that he has gone through. I understand that before I met Dennis he was the Mayor of a tow in his home province. When I met him he was VP of HR at one of China’s largest manufacturers and designers of TV’s, Phones, and white goods (that’s household appliances to the rest of us.) He is an interesting guy and a real free thinker. I understand that his boss hired him to help challenge the way they do things there. I also understand that Dennis did exactly that. His boss apparently regretted the decision and moved him to VP of white goods in China’s interior and recently let him take paid time off to pursue his interest, helping parents and children grow into future leaders through a new style of pre-school/kindergarten.
Dennis’s idea is a cool one and rather revolutionary for China. What if you actually took the time to involve parents in their kids pre-school education and turn those moments into teachable leadership lessons? He is taking a rather creative step to helping solve the perceived shortage of leadership in private industry in China by getting parents involved in thinking about what their kids are doing. I sent him link to a great article from last week’s Geekdad blog that I thought he might enjoy in his pursuit. That link is here http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/03/the-importance-of-logic-critical-thinking/ for those of you interested in the source material.
I would hope that beyond the issue of leadership that he could help young parents with a shortage that is, in my opinion, a greater risk for business in China than a lack of leadership. A lack of thinking skills. Getting involved with your kids is a great time to start helping them think in critical ways and develop logic, but it also helps us to test some of our false assumptions and beliefs that limit our thinking skills. For my part our son is merrily rounding the bend at 3 and a half and full of questions. I understand that a lot of kids are into “why” at this age, but not my boy he is into “what does x eat?” or “where does x or y live?” He is busy sorting information into the filing cabinets in his head about how the world ought to be working. The challenge at this stage is to keep up with his information demands but also to get him to think about what logical connections he can make about these things. After all if airplanes and cars both drink petrol there ought to be a reason why…
A few years ago I was promoting assessments for hiring practices and at a marketing event someone asked me what I thought was the single most important factor in hiring that could be assessed. I said in all honesty, and still believe so today, that the answer is Critical Thinking Skills. Having watched people I hired and having watched countless other people in the workplace in China succeed and fail I can say with all honesty that it is more important than your personality type, EQ, or whatever idea du jour is sweeping management thinking. It is a luxury of a developed economy to say that EQ matters more than critical thinking skills, and it is a luxury honestly that is costing companies more than they realize.
A few years back I hired several recent graduates and had differing levels of success. The first hire tested on a critical thinking test at the 35th percentile, the second in the 95th percentile, and the last one at the 55th percentile. In other words I had a range from the bottom third to the middle to a top tier thinker. This was before I instituted a strict no one below the 70th percentile rule. Within the probation period I had let go of the bottom rung hire, the stories I can tell about those 90 days range from funny to sad in both reflect his inability to comprehend his job and my inability as a manager to figure out how he needed to here about his job to succeed at a basic level. The other two stayed for both more than a year with the mid-range employee staying on long after I left. The key difference between these two remaining employees was how long it took to learn information and really the ability to question what they were learning.
The top tier employee within 18 months became the top sales person and had her own group of clients that she was working with. She had changed the way our HR system worked and had also by asking tough questions made it some interesting break-throughs. In strategic HR terms we would call her a “super-keeper.” The mid-range thinker could support a host of training programs and became over the 2 and half years I worked with a reliable and consistent performer. But what colored our relationship was a discussion after she had been a part of my team for 11 months. After a workshop I reminded her that she had one month left to make her first sale. She looked at me and said, “I don’t understand what do you mean.” I reminded her that in her contract it explicitly said she had to bring in one sale valued at 30,000 RMB within her first year or her contract wouldn’t be renewed. That earned me “I had no idea sales were important.” This is despite the fact that we discussed sales figures at the beginning of every sales week. This taught me a lesson about not relying on the implied importance of something we say over and over again. A lesson my 3 year old has refreshed for me time and time again.
To be honest there are some areas of critical thinking that I find statistically are very good here. The Watson Glaser critical thinking battery (used in the USA) divides critical thinking into five areas inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. I have found using a culturally assessment that the average test taker does well with recognizing assumptions and interpretation in China with a balanced result in evaluation of arguments. In other words something here works very well in the education and parenting model in China. But what about inference and deduction what is happening here.
We can think of “Inference” in terms of Hume’s Law or best summed up in the English maxim, “you cannot get ought from is.” Any other words just because it is this way today by no means does this indicate it must be the case tomorrow. We see barriers here in the emphasis of absolutes in the Chinese education system.
What stumps many young thinkers here about deduction is the ability to go through the three stages of deduction (e.g. if x is true and y is true then z must follow) or even creating a converse negative (if x is NOT true…) but the ability to obviate personal prejudice. For whatever reason I see even the brightest and most talented young people unable to separate moral imperatives and political brain washing from the thinking process. Below is a real example of introducing deduction to participants in a training program. I should thank Freeman for creating this example a couple of years ago as I still use it today.
Me: So as we look at this slide with this lovely young lady “Ayawawa” we see her quote here, ““Anyone who is prettier than me is not as smart as me; anyone who is smarter than me is not so pretty as me.” What possible conclusion can we make according to logical deduction.
The source of much debate...
HR Manager in attendance: she is a bitch!
Me: that is possible, but let’s try using critical thinking!
Here is the good news, critical thinking skills can be taught. I would argue that you should hire for them first, but if you can’t go that route then as a leader you are stuck emphasizing thinking skills. That means putting away a tendency to solve problems for others no matter how tempting it may be. One of the first things we teach in coaching is stop solving other people’s problems. That is the same lesson I offer leaders who want subordinates to think. Secondly start facilitating instead of directing. Set-up discussions that require critical thinking and offer support on getting team members to think about things. This keeps things from getting to the 11th month and having an employee say, “you mean sales matter?” Never mind that your office or team is explicitly labeled as a sales office or team… explicit labels kill critical thinking right? So ask and challenge and don’t get frustrated.
The rewards for having a team that asks questions and can think about how to solve them are great. While you’re at it though encourage the parents in your life to get their kids thinking, it will save a lot of work for the next generation, and maybe they can worry more about hiring for EQ instead of thinking skills.