Have you ever known someone who just “knew” what people needed? Or who could easily ask questions to get at the heart of some issue or challenge? Or who could just look at something and predict that there would be a problem? All of these abilities stem from a single valuable skill: Critical observation.
What is critical observation?
Critical observation is the ability to notice subtle details that allow us to maneuver situations more tactfully.
Importantly, critical observation is different from “critical thinking.” Critical thinking involves skills that allow a person to analyze facts and information to reach some decision or conclusion. Critical observation, on the other hand, involves skills in reading a person, process, or situation to get new information. People who are good at critical observation often notice things that other people might miss.
Many business leaders simply assume that this skill is something people are born with: “People either have it, or they don’t.” On the contrary, we have found that it is something that can be taught and sharpened through training.
That’s a good thing because critical observation is one of the most essential soft skills a person can have in business today. And as with most skills, it may be easier to train your employees in it than to find it already developed in the talent pool.
An Example of Critical Observation in the Workplace
Sometimes real-life examples of critical observation are hard to spot (ironically). Sharing a good example I’ve seen can help us understand why this skill is so important for developing your people and growing your organization.
Take a fairly common occurrence, like an employee who is struggling to meet his deadlines (yet turns in great work overall). Your typical manager might try all sorts of incentives or threats to get him to turn in the work on time. Should those fail and the situation not improve, the manager will either terminate the employee or simply manage timelines around the late work.
But now let’s imagine a manager with sharp critical observation skills. They might notice that the employee here only has trouble with deadlines that fall on the third week of the month. Asking some delicate questions, they find out that this is due to child care issues. Now knowing this, the manager encourages an earlier start on the project if it’s a hard deadline, or offer flexibility to work from home.
Had this pattern not been observed, the manager would have assumed the employee was being inefficient and then placed more pressure and scrutiny on him, ultimately leading to the departure of an otherwise great producer. Instead, the manager was able to assess the situation and make it work for the employee, guaranteeing good, consistent work.
Remember, most managers with this skill didn’t come by it naturally. They had to learn it.
Two Types of Critical Observation
My teams have found that there are two basic types of critical observation: Observation of people, and observation of processes. As it turns out, you can train people to help sharpen both of these types of skills.
People who are good critical observers of other people know how to listen carefully and observe. They are the kinds of employees who are considered to have high “emotional intelligence.” The manager above is a good example.
There are other people, though, who have better critical observation skills when it comes to processes. These are people who catch mistakes early, both their own and others’. They have a feel for what they don’t know, ask questions, and are naturally curious.
A person can be good at one or the other, or both. Each type simply involves a slightly different set of skills, and so training for each requires developing a different skill set.
Training to Help with the Critical Observation of People
What sorts of skills help when working with people? Here are a few training topic examples:
Active listening is the skill of listening attentively to people and striving to first understand them. It requires that the listener concentrate on what is being said, indicate that they are listening, and confirm their understanding. In other words, to listen actively, you have to pay attention. You can’t multitask, you can’t avoid eye contact, you can’t assume, and you can’t be formulating your response in your head. People can be trained to do these things, which greatly improves communication within and across teams.
Analyzing Performance Issues
Few teams achieve 100% of their goals 100% of the time. There are different reasons that might be. Sometimes people lack the ability to perform, sometimes they lack the motivation to perform, and sometimes they lack both. A person with good critical observation skills understands the difference between “can do” and “will do” and can figure out which is the roadblock to performance.
When we better understand emotions—our own and those of our coworkers and employees—we can better handle stress, resolve conflict, and ultimately produce better work. A large part of critical observation of people involves workplace empathy. It’s not WHAT the person did, it’s WHY and HOW that matters.
People with high critical observation skills can best apply them to people when they know what to look for. For example, you can often understand what creates functional teams, and what might lead to conflict, when understanding the “DISC” style of your employees. (“DISC” stands for the four personality types in the model: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.) Once you know about these different types, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Being aware of these styles, in yourself and others, can help you to participate in, and manage, teams better.
Even if we consider ourselves open-minded and fair people, unconscious biases can sneak in and color our perceptions of people. Those who have trained up their critical observation skills are most aware of their potential unconscious biases and actively work to correct for them. (You can view a full course from our series on unconscious bias.)
Training to Help with the Critical Observation of Processes
Critical observation of people is important because almost all of us have to work with people. There is also a lot of value to seeing things critically when looking at processes.
Knowing What We Don’t Know
There are things that people know, and they know that they know them. There are also things that people don’t know, and they are aware that they do not, in fact, know them. But each of us also has a long list of things we don’t know, and don’t know that we don’t know. People who are critical observers are always on the lookout for what they don’t know, so they can learn and improve. Learning to spot what we don’t yet know is a valuable skill in any organization.
Discovering the Root Cause of a Problem
People who are keen observers of processes have a knack for “getting to the bottom of things.” They can zero in on the cause of a problem, even if that cause is not obvious to the casual observer. You can train employees to have this “knack” by instructing them in a method such as “The 5 Whys,” which they can use to find actionable solutions to problems. I’ll note, too, that the better your employees get at critical observation, the better they will be able to find answers to “why?” questions! (Preview our course on The 5 Whys.)
Seeing Problems Differently
Not all questions have straightforward answers, and not all problems are easily solved. Sometimes it takes a good dose of creativity to understand what the real problem is, and how it can be fixed. This, too, is a critical observation skill that can be trained—and doing so often has a huge impact on the bottom line.
Further Reading and Viewing
- All of the topics I’ve mentioned above are available as training courses from ej4 with a free trial of Thinkzoom. We also have some sample videos available in our video library, which you can sample without any obligation.
- View two of the courses mentioned above on unconscious bias and the 5 whys.
- If any of that material seems appealing, you might also be interested in our article “How to Buy eLearning Content for Your LMS (And Not Regret It Later).” It has a handy checklist you can use to make sure you’re getting all the necessary features when shopping around for training content.
- Check out more soft skills training topics included in our Business Skills Library.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 4, 2016, and has been updated for freshness and comprehensiveness.