Today’s young workforce is smart, tech savvy, and quick to stretch their ideas. So why do so many managers say these same employees have a hard time thinking on their feet? One experienced manager explained it well:

“They know a lot. But if they’re not sure of something, they go right to their device. If there is not an obvious online resource to answer their question immediately, then they turn right to another person—whoever is available. What they never seem to do, though, is just stop and think. Although they can often find the ‘right’ answer, they don’t fully understand the answer they’ve found. It’s not just a lack of experience; their thinking is shallow and wide, instead of deep. They don’t puzzle through the problem, and they don’t stop and reflect on why the ‘right’ solution is the right solution.”

This begs the question: As these young adults become players in the real world of work, why don’t they stop and think on their feet, puzzle through problems, and reflect more on the best solutions?

Of course, there is one big reason: They’ve never needed to before. Today’s information environment offers infinite answers to nearly every question, and they’ve always had powerful, easy-to-use tech at their fingertips.

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With computers, content providers, and other “grown-ups” ready to do so much of their thinking for them, today’s young workers have little experience digging deep, puzzle solving, or reflecting. They have a built-in expectation that learning curves are instant, and they think about learning in terms of small increments. In other words, they simply fill skill and knowledge gaps as they run across them. The long learning curve is not only rare, it’s a bit of a mystery.

What can managers do? Teach young workers why critical thinking is important. Be prepared to explain that, in the workplace, critical thinking is not just a personal matter of individual style or preference and define the essential elements of critical thinking:

  • Proactive learning: Employees need to keep an open mind, suspend judgment, question assumptions, and seek out information, technique, and perspective. They can use study and practice to build a stored knowledge base, skill set, and wisdom.
  • Problem solving: Employees need to establish best practices—proven repeatable solutions for dealing with regular recurring decisions—so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. They need to be able to use repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing issues that are new but similar.
  • Decision making: Employees need to identify and consider multiple options, assess the pros and cons, and choose the course of action that most closely aligns to the desired outcome.