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Martine Bolton

Sunshine Corporate & Personal Development

Corporate & Personal Development Consultant

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The future of work: why it’s time to prioritise thinking skills

The old skills and ways of working won’t cut it in the workplace of the future. We need to change our thinking – fast.

Our world is changing rapidly. In the immortal words of Duke Ellington, “things ain’t what they used to be”, and the skills, strategies and ways of working that have served us well for the last few decades, just aren’t cutting it any more. If businesses and organisations wish to survive and thrive in the ever-changing, volatile and uncertain world that we’re live in, something needs to change, and significantly so.

The quality of a person or organisation’s thinking is the primary influencing factor in the quality of the results they’ll get. Therefore, we need to invest in ‘thinking skills’.

As more routine work is being automated, the more interesting, people-focused, problem-solving creative and intuitive work is left for humans to do – the kind of work that requires a heart and a mind. Whilst the future of work looks great in so many ways, it does present us with something of a challenge.

We are potentially amazing, but our thinking generally isn’t

Tough times call for great thinking, and currently we have a bit of a deficit in the ‘great thinking’ department. It’s nothing that can’t be remedied, of course – it’s just that many of us haven’t yet been trained in optimising our thinking. Indeed, we may have been trained not to think for ourselves, but to just follow instructions, and to top it all off, most of us have a fair amount of faulty and unhelpful thinking.  

Worry, fear, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, negative and limiting beliefs, thinking errors, cognitive biases, criticism, comparison, perfectionism, foggy thinking, attention deficit and over-thinking are just some examples of the kinds of thinking that don’t help us. With this level of system interference, it’s no surprise that many of us don’t perform at, or even near our full potential, and that organisations are failing to secure optimal results.

In times of austerity, when we’re having to make the very best of all the resources available to us, it’s more important than ever to address this ‘great thinking’ deficit, in order to access as much of the potential that we know lies within our people as possible.

Our strategies need to change

Many organisations recognise that their people are their most important asset – after all, it’s generally the ‘human factor’ that differentiates the great from the good. Many would also agree that employees can only perform at a level that reflects the training and development that’s invested in them.

There was a period in history when we invested lots of time and money into filling people’s heads with knowledge, with the aim of improving their work performance. There were a lot of courses with a lot of slides, that contained a lot of bullet points. We believed that if we gave people information, theories, models and frameworks, it would help to optimise their performance. No doubt it helped, to some extent.

Unfortunately not everyone will have fully made the connection between the quality of thinking that’s taking place, and the resulting KPIs that are being achieved (or not).

After a while, we realised that knowledge was one thing, but if it didn’t cause people to do something differently when they got back to the workplace, it wasn’t really improving the bottom line. So, we got a bit wiser, changed our strategy, and began investing time and money into facilitating behaviour change. We started to analyse the key actions and behaviours that made the biggest difference to results, and began including skills practice within training workshops, so that people could learn to master those actions and behaviours. This did a lot to improve performance.

Whilst skills and knowledge-based training are generally an important part of learning activity, they don’t necessarily influence the primary drivers of behaviour, which the TFAR model below (originating from cognitive behavioural theory) demonstrates, are thoughts and feelings:  


Put simply, our thoughts create our feelings, which drive our actions and behaviours, which in turn determine the results that we get. The quality of a person or organisation’s thinking is the primary influencing factor in the quality of the results they’ll get. Therefore, we need to invest in ‘thinking skills’ training in order to maximise performance and optimise results.

The role of the employer

There can be a lot of things going on around people (inside and outside of work) that influence their thoughts, feelings and actions, and to some degree, many of these can be managed, and/or (with training) we can rise above them.

Workplaces have a significant part to play in creating environments that minimise stressors, and maximise positive thoughts and feelings. Many organisations have invested heavily in wellbeing initiatives in recent years, and some of these things are making a significant difference. All the free apples and desk massages in the world, however, won’t make a difference if nothing is being done to identify and address the factors in the workplace that are causing stress or otherwise working against people.

The role of learning and development

L&D’s role is to optimise workforce performance to ensure the best results and therefore they want thinking skills to be high on the agenda. Unfortunately not everyone will have fully made the connection between the quality of thinking that’s taking place, and the resulting KPIs that are being achieved (or not).

As performance improvement specialists who are passionate about leading our organisations towards greater success and wellbeing, we may well need to educate those around us who’ve yet to make this connection for themselves, as well as convey the urgency with which action should ideally be taken.

Skills for the (imminent) future

The World Economic Forum’s recent Future of Jobs Report advises that the following skills will be growing in prominence in 2022:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning strategies
  3. Creativity, originality and initiative
  4. Technology design and programming
  5. Critical thinking and analysis
  6. Complex problem-solving
  7. Leadership and social influence
  8. Emotional intelligence
  9. Reasoning, problem-solving and brainstorming
  10. Systems analysis and evaluation

These are the skills businesses and organisations will need if they are to thrive into the future. With so many of them being directly linked with thinking (and with 2022 being not that far away now), we’ll need to start equipping our people with these skills sooner rather than later, or risk finding ourselves dealing with significant skills gaps and struggling to function.

Whilst schools in the UK are beginning to teach some of these skills, they’re a relatively recent addition to the curriculum, and most over 21s won’t have been taught them.

We need a programme upgrade

We shouldn’t forget in all of this that the quality of an organisation’s thinking is as much about the mindset, attitudes and beliefs that people have been programmed with, as it is about the kind of higher-order thinking skills mentioned in the list above. Many of the problems, dysfunctions and disappointing results in business stem from unhelpful attitudes and beliefs.

For this reason, it’s not enough to simply train people in the skills of critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, and so on. We also need to help them explore the faulty, unhelpful and limiting concepts they’ve been programmed with, and invite them to replace these with more accurate, helpful concepts that will empower them to feel and do better. It’s entirely doable, with the right approach.

The world is changing and evolving rapidly, and humans need to change and evolve with it. We need a programme upgrade, and organisations that don’t seek to facilitate this upgrade soon, will be severely compromised. It’s not too late, but we should start soon.

Interested in this topic? Read Personal development: how to stimulate better business thinking.

Author Profile Picture
Martine Bolton

Corporate & Personal Development Consultant

Read more from Martine Bolton

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