Leadership Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking
The concept of metacognition in leadership may sound complex, but its simplest definition is “thinking about thinking,” and it can help leaders improve their interpersonal skills rapidly. Metacognition is related to emotional intelligence. Leaders with well-developed metacognitive ability will think about how well they understand an event before acting. They’ll decide whether or not they are missing information.
Then, they can reflect on the best way to gain any missing information, and search for and access the resources to gain the required knowledge. The leader then uses the information to analyze their personal thoughts. This gives them the ability to discard negative thoughts that can lead to negative behaviors, like yelling, threatening, or commanding employees or refusing to listen to employee ideas or problems.
Metacognitive Thinking Scenario
Imagine two managers in the workplace. They each overhear employees discussing attending a meeting with a union representative. One manager interrupts the discussion and says, “If you’re trying to start a union, you can kiss your jobs good-bye.” The other manager realizes she doesn’t know the best way to respond. Instead of reacting on the spot, she reviews the company’s website-based leadership development material concerning employee and employer rights. The second manager finds out what to say and not say. She learns the legal and appropriate steps to take and the company’s philosophy and policies on unions.
Our metacognitive second leader also assesses her own thoughts about unions to grow self-awareness. Only then does she formulate an action plan and response.
The first manager responds without thinking, not realizing he is lacking information. He is using a traditional “command-and-control” leadership style that’s simply not acceptable in today’s workplace. In truth, the second manager may have secretly wanted to threaten the employees with their jobs. She realizes, however, that she lacks the knowledge needed to appropriately respond without making the situation worse.
In this and many other situations, a wrong response can quickly lead to grievances and unfair labor practices charges. The second manager is using her metacognitive ability. She is able to step back from the event, think about her initial response, and learn about different legal responses rather than automatically reacting.
Metacognition: Turning Off Auto-Pilot
Metacognitive ability is a skill that is called upon in a variety of situations. For example, a diverse workforce requires leaders to recognize and eliminate biases to be effective managers and create a truly collaborative culture. Cultural metacognition is reflective thinking about your and others’ cultural assumptions and how diverse people communicate. When you provide communication training to your leaders, you are providing metacognition skills development.
A manager with good skills will reflect on things like implicit bias and the best way to talk to employees to overcome language or cultural barriers. He or she has well-developed listening skills (information gathering and reflection) and gives thoughtful feedback (appropriate response). Thoughtful feedback means ingrained, automatic responses, often reflecting conscious and unconscious biases to some degree, are avoided.
Leaders who develop positive behaviors do so by monitoring and controlling their information processing. They intentionally assess cultural biases at the moment of communication. Leaders who are skilled at metacognition are more likely to engage employees, develop a high level of trust, successfully resolve conflicts, and make better strategic decisions.
Metacognitive Thinking Is a Necessary Leadership Skill
Metacognitive ability is a skill all leaders need, from the executive level to the frontline supervisors. It takes practice to develop this ability. Most people respond like auto-pilot, rather than stopping to assess their beliefs and assumptions about events, conversations, and people. Have you ever stepped back from an event and tried to consciously observe your thoughts like an impartial viewer? Or do you often respond off-the-cuff while having self-congratulatory thoughts that you’re the boss and can say what you want?
Think back to the two managers at the beginning of this story. Metacognitive skills allow the second manager to step back and fact-find. Only then does she thoughtfully respond. This is one reason a key strategy for remaining union-free is to develop a website. This type of tool provides managers with a tool to help them think about their own reactions. It can also help them in their fact-finding mission by explaining your company’s philosophy about unions, giving a summary of labor laws, and explaining the do’s and don’ts of responding to signs of union activity.
Leaders need ongoing 24/7 access to development tools of all kinds, including those focused on metacognition and effective communication skills. Keeping information available at all times enables leadership development at all times.
Metacognition: “Why Do I Think This Way?”
The first step in developing metacognitive ability is to develop cognitive knowledge. This is simply becoming aware of your thought processes. Unless you learn to stop and assess thoughts, you won’t be able to identify your automatic thought process.
The next step is learning to identify the various thought paths you go down and begin regulating those that don’t serve you well. Repeat this process over and over again, each time discarding the thoughts that prevent positive behaviors. Each time you modify your thoughts, you will open your thinking to the most effective strategies, and the best choice.
Awareness of thoughts is supplemented with learning new skills. During the thought modification process, ask yourself questions as to why you are having particular thoughts. Just as an example, why might you assume women are too emotional to be good managers? Or why would you believe two culturally different sets of employees will never be able to effectively collaborate? Why do you believe low employee engagement levels have nothing to do with your management style? What’s the real reason you consistently fail to assign diverse employees to project teams?
Just as important, make yourself thoughtfully answer each question, and then think about the answer you come up with. For example, do you want to threaten someone with their job for talking about unions because you fear for your own job? Another related metacognitive activity includes monitoring comprehension or interpretations of the text, like emails and social media posts. Metacognitive skills can include problem-solving through planning that incorporates self-assessment. Additionally, thinking about thinking can mean reflecting on conversations or interactions with employees to assess whether there were communication mistakes made.
How To Develop This Necessary Leadership Skill
Leadership communication training can accelerate the development of metacognitive ability. It helps managers and supervisors develop listening and feedback skills. Further, leaders are able to recognize conscious and unconscious biases and be more thoughtful in decision-making. Combine the training with the self-analysis effort to modify thought processes, and you develop more effective leaders. Through leadership example, the entire process can lead to the development of a mindful, emotionally intelligent culture where everyone thinks about what they are thinking.