People in Technical Roles, Engineers, and Natural Scientists are Particularly at Risk of Not Getting the Promotion they Desire
Critical thinking is an essential leadership skill. No one reaches the executive level in an organization without extraordinary critical thinking capabilities. But if critical thinking is your biggest asset, and you constantly rely on it to move forward, beware: your biggest strength may one day turn into your career stopper!
First of all, you need to understand that every strength, when overused, becomes a weakness. It’s good to be confident, but there is a fine line between being self-assured and arrogant. A leader must be assertive, but not aggressive. A CEO must be brave, not reckless.
If you are so great at critical thinking, there is a high risk that your critical thinking mode is always switched on. As a result, others may not just perceive you as ‘critical’, you may very well come across as ‘negative’ and that’s no good. No one wants a negative leader.
A group that seems to be at a particularly high risk are engineers and natural scientists, and all those who work in areas with high safety and security concerns. In these fields of work, people with amazing critical thinking abilities are needed. Imagine running a chemical plant with hazardous materials. Everyday decision makers must think of everything that could possibly go wrong. One mistake, and they could blow up a whole plant. You would want the same critical thinking abilities from the people who have constructed that plane which you are about to board next week.
These people have been conditioned day by day for years to think first: ‘what might go wrong?’ No wonder that this becomes a habit, and that they bring the what-might-go-wrong attitude to every meeting, and eventually to their homes. For others who are not used to this way of thinking, such behaviors can be quite irritating. “Why is Tom always so negative?” or “Linda seems to see a problem in everything; I’d rather have her focus on solutions, not problems.”
Often I am asked to help high performers who at some point in time seem to get stuck in their careers. They have done great work, moved up the ranks quickly, and everyone counts on them. But when it comes to a promotion to a more senior executive position, decision makers have some “buts”. Their concerns are often related to the candidate’s critical thinking ability — which helped them reach their current job level, but prevents them from getting to the next, because they are perceived as negative. Being negative — sorry: being perceived as being negative! — may be tolerated when you are a technical expert who delivers great results. In a more exposed senior leadership position where you are permanently in the spotlight, and where cultivating relationships becomes increasingly important, negativity is not appreciated.
When I interview managers in an organization, I am surprised how quickly the different attitudes surface: some people tend to dwell in problems, and whilst they may very well be high performers on a technical level, I sense immediately how senior management will label their behavior as negative. It’s not helping them. Other people I interview face the same problems, but their thinking is more solution-oriented. From speaking to people for less than 30 minutes, I can predict who’s up for the next promotion and who isn’t.
So if you are among these people with outstanding critical thinking capabilities, and if you get a sense that perhaps you are not on top of the list for the next promotion but you want it, what can you do?
1) First of all, think about feedback that you have received in the past. Have people ever conveyed to you that they see you as ‘negative’ or ‘overly critical’? Even when you do not see yourself this way, such feedback should ring an alarm bell!
2) Next, you must sharpen your awareness: are you always in critical thinking mode? Get into the ‘helicopter view’ and observe yourself. Notice when critical thinking is appropriate (e.g. during a risk analysis) and when it is not (e.g. when your spouse is driving the car).
3) Manage perception. During meetings and other conversations, be aware of the needs of others. What do they want from you in this situation? What should you give them? Understand the impact your behavior will have in this situation: how will they see you when you point out what can go wrong compared to when you provide a solution?
After all, who would you like to follow? A leader who points out problems all the time, or one who shows you a path to a glorious future?
Would you like a personal consultation on how you can advance in your career by building on your strengths without having them get into your way? Contact me now for a personal consultation without any obligations:
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