Just a few weeks ago, Keenan expressed that he finally could define what it is that he likes about working with me: I take ownership of my work.
Since this statement, I’ve given the notion considerable thought. Is this the true driver and ultimate path to critical thinking? As I go through my professional life, the criticisms, successes, flat out failures…I realize that taking ownership is an accurate statement and honestly the only way I work…but is it the core of critical thinking? And how does it ultimately impact performance?
Critical thinking skills have been at the forefront of conversation when it comes to hiring.
Forbes reported that “critical thinking” is the most frequently listed desired attribute in job ads. But how do you hire critical thinkers? Those that seek the greater understanding, desire mastery, and are willing to challenge the norm?
Is it simply part of a core personality? It is learned behavior? Like many behavior science topics, we find ourselves in the realm of the nature vs nurture conundrum. I wonder how much influence early career jobs have on feeling free to make decisions…
I say this because I had a rather unique first job experience that I believe shaped much of my career.
STORY TIME! Stay with me people…we’re talking nurture.
It was 1999 and I had just turned 14 years old (yes, I’m dating myself here). My mother was a medical transcriptionist for a dermatology group. The group, in their busiest time of year, lost a full time admin and the team simply couldn’t keep up with all of the work. So my cleaver mother offered a solution: her daughter is old enough to legally work and knows how to file. With 20-30 hours a week of filing, having this one area of business handled could provide temporary relief until they could hire.
Naturally, most 14 year olds do not get to work in a medical office, particularly since this admin role had a requirement of college, but they were desperate as they were seeing 90 patients a day.
My first week, I did what I was told and approached it as a trainee. They walked me through the filing, confidentiality rules, etc… but after my first week, I started asking questions because I noticed some trends. So I decided to validate my theory. I went department by department and asked them to walk me through their processes.
I figured out how everything in the office had a consistent and predictable flow.
When I was being trained, I was told to file the files first because they were large and took up space. THIS single instruction didn’t make any sense to me. You see, those 90 patient files over the next 24 hour period would need to be pulled and refiled over and over because the reports would come in stacks. Once I reviewed each department, I realized that everyone processed documents in order of appointment, NOT alphabetically. By the nature of the processes, each item organically was produced in the same order as the files would land for filing.
So I didn’t ask permission or discuss it…I made one simple request my second week: I’d like to come into the office in the late afternoon and I’d like a designated work space.
The office manager didn’t think much of it, and gave me a few curious looks when I didn’t file the patient files upon arriving. Instead, I verified the files were still stacked in order of appointments. I then asked, “are the insurance documents ready?” They were! Then I went to the next group and asked if they also had their reports ready. So I collected documents from each department, lined them up in stacks along my work space…and matched all of the top documents to the top file, as they were perfectly in order of appointment.
What once took 5-6 hours per day, now only took 1 single hour.
As you can imagine, the staff was rather surprised by this. They had the system in place for years and no one had really considered or noticed the simple rhythm of the work…OR was it really no one felt empowered to make such a change?
You see, I was in a unique position…
I was 14 years old so let’s be real; expectations were low. It was also a temporary arrangement so I wasn’t too worried about being insubordinate. I had never had a bad experience with breaking the rules at a job because it was my first job. End of the day, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain since my ultimate goal was to provide relief to the staff. I could care less that I just took myself from earning 20 hours a week of pay to 5 hours. It wasn’t about the money for me.
I think back to this experience. Ultimately, the doctor decided to not hire another admin, let me keep my position permanently and expanded my scope of work. He wanted me to continue learning and gave me the total freedom to continue to consider process improvements. I stayed working for him for 4 years until it was time for me to leave for college, and we still speak to this day.
This level of autonomy, trust, and encouragement is rare when entering the workforce.
Had I been met with the classic “don’t think, just do as you’re told” statements, I’m not sure I would have continued in my career with the same confidence and comfort with breaking the rules. Most early jobs have this negative type of approach to do what you are told, particularly with teenagers. I can’t help but wonder if those early experiences influence later workplace behavior.
That said, there is certainly a nature element to this thought.
In the 3rd grade, I very clearly made a case to my teacher as to why I felt she was a bad teacher. I was prepared with evidence and specific observable moments. Even then, I felt little fear with challenging my superiors. Being sent to the principal’s office or scoldings from my parents didn’t derail my position that my education was compromised by the teacher’s incompetence. I held a similar stance in high school with the principal leveraging her position of power to belittle students. My comment to her was somewhere along the lines of, “I find your hatefulness to students rather concerning and highly distasteful.”
My nature is to care greatly about the quality of my work. It is also to care greatly about how I impact the lives of those around me. So I cannot stand by while someone is hateful or poor performance creates risky impacts.
With so many people afraid of breaking the rules, I think the fear is misplaced. The fear should be around the impacts of your contributions or lack of contributions.
Now that we are in 2019, I have worked in a professional environment for 20 years. And I’m happy to say that I’ve only been subjected to 2 individuals who did not appreciate my breaking the rules.
The first one told me that my work is fantastic, my changes were smart, blah blah blah…. but ultimately, breaking the rules without “permission” made the CEO nervous. Even then, I challenged her asking why it would make her nervous when the results are proving highly successful? Surely this would establish trust? Her response was simply “because it’s my business.” I gave it thought and asked another question, “so it’s less about success and more about your success?” Answer “well yes, because it’s mine!”
Which brings us back to ownership. I never fully considered her words “because it’s mine” until recently when Keenan made the statement about ownership. Of course, this particular CEO’s desire for exclusive ownership, good or bad, was more about her ego and thus made her a weak leader…but it’s there: ownership. Sink or swim. Good or bad. Success or Failure. It is all owned.
So what happens when the team owns it to? Owns the success and failures? Owns the responsibility? Acts in the greater good of the company rather than personal interest? Builds a culture of fearless thinkers?
Is ownership the ultimate path to critical thinking?