Expose Your Thinking

I borrow this title phrase from a coaching client – I’ll call him Nick – who has identified “exposing his thinking” as a development goal. Nick wanted to have more impact in his organization, and at first he tried to do that by doing more of what he was good at – thinking. He formulated ideas inside his own head and was uncomfortable sharing those ideas until they were fully formed. He asked people questions for the purpose of fleshing out his internal problem analyses, thinking he was being inclusive by doing so, but the reason for his questions was known only to him.  He might be concerned about the pace of progress on a project, but instead of saying that, he’d ask for a status update.


This style was harming Nick’s working relationships. Co-workers were frustrated because they felt he was keeping information and plans to himself. Many of them had concluded that he was doing this in order to satisfy some hidden agenda.


Nick didn’t have a hidden agenda – he just liked thinking alone. And he is far from unique. Why do so many leaders prefer to think alone?


Assumptions that lead to thinking alone

Many leaders have strength in conceptualizing – whether they call it “connecting the dots” or “being strategic”. This set of capabilities is commonly referred to as being “smart”.  So, like Nick, even if you want to operate collaboratively, seek input, and engage others, you might enter conversations with your picture of the problem and solution already clearly framed, so others’ input only matters around the “edges”. And you might only involve those others whom you’ve already decided are on the critical path of the problem as you’ve defined it.


And like Nick, not only might you find it personally gratifying to think alone, but you might also assume that this is what is valued and rewarded by those around you. You constantly hear, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”


Costs of thinking alone

But, as Nick realized, there are downsides of thinking alone. When the intentions behind your statements and proposals aren’t transparent, it leaves room for others to make inferences about those intentions. And, as mistrust builds up, others become less likely to share their inferences with you to find out if they’re accurate. Nick was shocked to discover that others had created elaborate, but incorrect, stories about the reasons for his actions and statements. These stories had taken on a life of their own, so that, every time Nick took an action, others interpreted his action as driven by those same reasons.


In addition, when you think alone, the scope of your potential impact is limited to what you can personally get your arms around. You must rely on your own information or the information you know to solicit from others, your own decision criteria, your own assessment of risk, your own energy for change. Nick was trying to drive several new initiatives, but he had not succeeded in getting others to be as excited about those initiatives as he was.


The surprising things that happen when you expose your thinking

Nick resolved to start operating differently – to share his thinking with others before it was fully formed. The first thing he noticed was, once he thought in terms of “thinking together” with others, his stress diminished, because he no longer felt  the pressure was on him to succeed all on his own. Others started becoming invested in his mission – because their point of view was represented, they felt it was their mission as well.


In addition to exposing his thinking about the work, he exposed his thinking about his own development on this topic. And as he did this, others started opening up in return, in a way they never had previously. He was building allies.


A final side benefit was that, as Nick exposed his thinking to his direct reports, he found this had a developmental effect on them, as they learned from his thinking process.


How to expose your thinking

If you think you might benefit from exposing your thinking more, here are some actions you can take.


  • Reflect on your reasons for asking a question or making a statement, and explain those reasons when you ask a question.


  • Share your initial reactions, and frame them as such, even if you haven’t had time to fully think through an idea that’s presented to you.


  • Inquire into others’ interests and concerns about the issues at hand. You may have to dig a bit, but this will give you more insight into what others do and don’t understand about your viewpoint – and what you may be missing.


  • Inform others about your effort to develop in this respect, and solicit their ongoing feedback. You may unintentionally continue to hold information close to your chest, from force of habit. And, even if you are behaving more openly, others may continue to hold their old interpretations of your motives, whether those are accurate or not. Opening up this dialogue will help them see your intentions differently.


There’s a risk in exposing your thinking, and that is that you may have to let go of “control” over the solution you have in mind, and let go of sole credit for realizing it. Nick found this was a small price to pay, in return for a broader and shared sense of accomplishment.

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