8 mental management skills you need to master

Managers are busy each day going from text to text, e-mail to e-mail, meeting to meeting and reading report after report, rarely, having time to reflect upon events, activities or decisions at hand.

Their work environment is rife with information overload, meetings that last far too long, requests, semi-annual re-orgs and interruptions. Managers are engaged in a frenetic balancing act each week.  This process becomes especially daunting when they are faced with making a complex decision that affects myriad stakeholders.

Managers should have a set of fundamental mental skills that provide a structural underpinning to their approach to thinking. Without these skills, their management style can be haphazard at best. There are eight mental skills successful managers employ in today’s fast changing environment:

  • Systems thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Environmental perception
  • Stakeholder awareness
  • Ethical framework
  • Avoid dichotomous thinking
  • Intuition

Systems thinking

Managers should be able to view opportunities, challenges or problems as systems entities. Systems entities have inputs, processes, outputs, seen and unseen factors, unintended consequences and multiple stakeholders. An issue at hand may appear straightforward but can have subtleties that will become quite apparent later. Taking a pause to consider the bigger picture i.e. the systems view can serve a manager well.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking does not refer to being critical i.e. judgmental or negative when considering an issue or receiving information. Critical thinking involves the ability to be able to read or listen objectively, consider the source(s) of the information in terms of being credible and trustworthy, and being able to exercise careful judgment based upon the information or event at hand. It is an ability to reflect upon what is being discussed and avoiding quick fixes.

Creative thinking

Managers must think creatively to foster new ideas and approaches to their work and decision making.  Creative thinking involves considering issues differently and sometimes through the eyes of other stakeholders.  It also means encouraging creative thinking from the entire team.

A manager must allow ‘open space’, which, in this case, refers to physical space and freedom to think.  Open space can be a common room, atrium or an area in the cafeteria/kitchen where employees, including different departments, are encouraged to visit during the day to foster their creative thinking and innovation.  It is an open area that encourages discussion, idea generation and knowledge exchange, and ‘what if’ questions to be posed and respectfully debated.  No bosses allowed during discussions.  Open space can create time for employees to understand the work of others and its meaning to them.

Managers have technology, metrics and reporting mechanisms to maintain control of a function, activity or team.  Unloosen the reins a bit.  It can be a healthy exercise to allow employees time to pause and reflect upon their work and the company.  When this situation happens, ideas and questions can emerge.  About once a month or so, management should take time to listen objectively, without attribution, to the questions, or ideas that emerge; some of them will contain nuggets.  Management should listen for the nuggets; they may be invaluable.  (Give this concept time to develop since employees are not used to being asked for their ideas and candid input.)

Environmental perception

The term environment, in this case, refers to the company’s external environment, its market and industry, it operates within not ecology.  Environmental scanning (ES) is an obscure marketing sub-function.  ES is a methodology for coping with external competitive, social, market, economic or technology-related issues that are difficult to understand their impact on the company but that cannot be ignored (Stoffels, 1994).  ES involves how a company perceives its external environment, brings select information into the company from the external environment and then acts upon the information.  ES has multiple dimensions that may include: customers, competitors, technology, financial markets, government as a regulator, social, ecology, ethics, suppliers, industry research and more. 

Market research, SWOT analysis and scenario development are sub-elements of ES.  Over time, companies, especially successful ones, have a tendency to become insular.  Few companies, in our industry, have formal ES systems or methodologies for monitoring the firm’s external environment.  It is within this context that managers must have an environmental perception of events, information and developments occurring outside the company to inform their judgment.  Managers must have awareness of what is happening in their market and industry; not just events but more importantly trends.  Each manager can develop a ‘personal’ ES system to stay abreast of their company’s external world.

Stakeholder awareness

Stakeholders are those people who are affected by your company’s decisions and actions, and those people whose decisions and actions affect your company.  Companies have many stakeholders: customers, partners, subcontractors, competitors, government, suppliers, financial entities, community, and the environment.  Management’s decisions and actions affect many people and can have a ripple effect for a long period of time.  Managers should be mindful of the company’s stakeholders during their daily work.

Ethical framework

Managers must have an ethical framework or lens through which they view their work and that of those around them.  Having an automatic sense of rightness and wrongness is a critical management attribute.  Corporations have been destroyed and Brand equity that was developed over decades erased because of a manager’s lapse in judgment.

Avoid dichotomous thinking

It is tempting to reduce issues, problems or questions to simple propositions: yes or no, left or right, black or white, free or expensive and so on.  Most issues have nuances whose resolution defies a binary categorization.  It is the manager’s responsibility to avoid the temptation of dichotomous thinking and deliberately consider the gray areas by thinking of third and fourth alternatives when possible.


When data, information, events, changes, rumors, politics and partial pictures, faced by managers each day, are blended together, management should be able to draw upon their intuition to make sense out of the chaos. Common sense, insight and experience underpin intuition and should be applied during decision making especially in situations where time is a luxury.

These eight attributes of managerial thinking are fundamental elements of being a successful manager.  Managers, regardless of their level in the organization, should hone these managerial thinking skills.  They will serve you well.

About the Author

Bob Davis has over 35-years’ experience in the federal information technology industry. He has held senior positions with products- and services-oriented, high-tech IT companies during his career. Bob has successfully worked for large- and medium–sized companies, and small businesses. Leadership positions have been held in business development, marketing, and program management. Bob has a doctor of management from the University of Maryland University College. He works for a medium-size company in our industry.

Reader Comments

Mon, Nov 9, 2015 Chuck McGann VA

Excellent article - we as senior managers often feel constrained by internal controls and don't think outside the box. Developing an effective ES dimension can help expand our vision and help drive the creative thinking that is often lacking in providing internal and external solutions.

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