In my previous post, I identified the soft skills that young employees are missing that their older colleagues value the most: professionalism, critical thinking and followership. Let’s take a closer look at critical thinking.

What most older leaders and managers mean by critical thinking is the ability to “think on your feet” – learning, problem-solving and decision-making, without the assistance of a handheld device. Many older managers of younger employees describe this issue similarly: “Millennial employees just don’t think on their feet the way we used to. If they are not sure of something, they go right to their phone. They never seem to just stop and think for an answer.”

By engaging in problem-solving this way, individuals are able to find the “right” answer, but they are less likely to fully understand that answer once they’ve found it. It’s not just a lack of a experience but a different way of thinking – shallow and wide, as opposed to “digging deep.” There is no need to puzzle through a problem and reflect on why the right solution is, in fact, the right solution.

Why don’t today’s young employees adopt this mode of critical thinking? The answer is probably obvious: They’ve never had the need. Today’s information environment offers infinite answers to every question under the sun, and young employees have always had powerful, easy-to-use information technology right at their fingertips. Rarely, if ever, have their conversations ended at, “I don’t know.” They have always had the ability to quickly and effortlessly look up an answer to any question, or a short related video, or information on a related topic that may prove more useful or interesting. Of course, they have also relied on their parents or teachers to be the ultimate authority on anything they truly couldn’t figure out on their own.

With computers, content providers and grown-ups to do so much “thinking” for them, today’s young employees don’t have as much experience digging deep, puzzling and reflecting as older generations had. They think of learning in small increments, filling skill and knowledge gaps as they come across them. The long learning curve is a rarity.

It is almost a hackneyed truth about today’s world that we all have an endless amount of information available at our fingertips at any time. It is nearly as hackneyed to say that today’s new young workforce has never known it any other way. The not-quite-obvious punchline is this: There has been a radical change in the prevailing mindset about how much information people need to keep inside their head versus how much they need accessible through their fingertips. Nobody should be so short-sighted or so old-fashioned as to write off the power of being able to find multiple competing answers to any question about any subject instantly.

Yet, this phenomenon is also at the root of the critical thinking skill gap. Critical thinking is difficult. It requires strong thinking muscles, and like any muscles, thinking muscles don’t get strong overnight. If you’ve never lifted weights, you have to start off with lighter weights and work yourself up to heavier lifting.

The good news is that it’s possible to coach new young employees on this soft skill like any other, following this basic strategy:

  • Make them aware: Name the skill, and describe what it means to the organization.
  • Make them care: Explore what the skill means to them in their role.
  • Sell it: Explain the self-building value of the skill.
  • Break it down: Spell out exactly what they need to do, step by step.
  • Make it easy: Use ready-made lessons and exercises whenever possible.
  • Involve them: Give them credit (and maybe even extra credit!) for self-directed learning.
  • Make it practical: Spotlight opportunities to practice on the job.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up: Provide coaching-style feedback to reinforce training whenever possible.

Helping your young employees embrace proactive learning is the first step toward improving their critical thinking skills. That means studying information, practicing techniques and contemplating multiple competing perspectives with an open mind. Encourage young employees to approach learning as though they don’t know anything at all and go from there. Without the clutter of preconceived ideas or opinions about a subject, there is mental space for them to store a regular stream of new information, techniques and perspectives:

  • Studying information builds employees’ stored knowledge base.
  • Practicing techniques builds their stored skill base.
  • Contemplating different perspectives (while keeping an open mind!) builds stored wisdom.

Never allow young employees to declare victory or conclude that their proactive learning period is over. Tell them, “Keep learning!” No matter how smart they are, if they are in the habit of proactive learning, they will keep getting smarter. Proactive learning is the ultimate transferrable skill and will never become obsolete.