Linear thinkers’ brains are wired differently than non-linear thinkers. As engineers (software, chemical, mechanical or electrical), information technology specialists, accountants and other research-based professionals, their linear style of thinking generally serves them well in their chosen professions. However, that can change as they move up the chain of command to leadership roles.

What is Linear Thinking?

Linear thinking is an analytic, methodic, rational and logical thinking style. A linear process moves forward like a line with a starting point and an ending point, and our brains often want to make simple straight connections in sequential order. In many situations, this style of thinking benefits us, especially if we need to deliver accurate information succinctly. If you are a linear thinker, you are considered left-brained (the seat of logic), meaning that one side of your brain is dominant. Linear thinkers use information they have learned from one situation to apply it to another situation in order to solve problems. They use consistency, rules, formulas or patterns to make decisions in life.

What is Non-Linear Thinking?

The opposite is non-linear thinking which is an intuitive, creative, artistic and emotional thinking style known as right-brained (the seat of creativity). It’s less-restrictive thoughts expand in multiple directions which allows for multiple points of logic rather than just one answer. Non-linear thinkers don’t work in straight lines or sequential manners. Instead, they make connections and draw conclusions from unrelated concepts or ideas. Both linear and non-linear thinking are integral to success in business and life in general. To be a good leader, you need to toggle back and forth between your right brain and your left brain. But challenges arise when someone over-indexes on one brain over the other.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”― Albert Einstein

Who are Linear Thinkers?

Linear thinking is common with data-driven people because there is a framework to their thinking that is reinforced through methodical repetition. Their neurosynapses are prone to go down the same paths again and again which is strengthened by the type of work they do. Take the case of Jon (not his real name): An engineering superstar and lauded for the superior results he continuously delivered, Jon climbed the ranks of his company, only to flounder when placed in a leadership role. He didn’t communicate eloquently. He lacked the capacity to impact and influence others. He didn’t appreciate dealing with interpersonal challenges or problems.

Leadership to Jon was essentially measurement and execution; “people” strategy didn’t factor into the equation. He didn’t understand team dynamics and was perplexed to see productivity take a dive. When he saw the results of his 360 evaluation, he was hurt. He became frustrated and began doubting his ability to lead effectively. While Jon’s predicament is a common one among linear thinkers, it doesn’t mean they can’t be effective leaders — in fact, linear thinkers have great potential at the helm.

The Strengths — and Challenges — of a Linear Thinker

Linear thinkers like Jon are analytical and process-driven, focused on results. Their logical thinking renders them highly capable when it comes to executing tasks, streamlining processes and delivering products and solutions. At the same time, they often lack — or choose not to tap into — an ability to see the big picture, which is essential to effective leadership. Because linear thinkers have a difficult time with ideation, they can get stuck “in the weeds.” Creativity and vision are not part of their natural repertoire. Often times, neither is the ability to dance effectively in communication.

As leaders, they make sure team members are held accountable and complete their work, but in the absence of context. They also often fail to achieve alignment with their teams, lacking the ability to inspire and influence.

It starts with something as basic as a walk down the hall. A linear thinker like Jon is likely focused on the destination (“Maria’s office”) for a specific purpose (“to review the new product specs”). With tunnel-like vision, Jon goes straight from Point A to Point B, sits down, and gets to work — interacting with as few people as possible along the way. A walk down the same hall would look very different for a leader who embodies a high level of emotional intelligence. The priorities and assumptions of a linear thinker are driven by an underlying operating system — and by what has worked in the past. Thoughts are usually driven by the task at hand. They can be iterative and agile in their thinking, but only as it relates to the appropriate lifecycle of building the product or process.

Linear thinkers are likely to avoid relationships and communication, minimizing their importance because it detracts from their core driver: efficiency. Herein lies the problem: These people are already at the top of their respective corporate ladders. There is no higher rung for them to climb — as an engineer, accountant or analyst. They may only be in their 30s, but they’ve reached the top of their career game, except to move into the ranks of executive leadership. They become frustrated because the skills that got them to the exceptional level where they are now are needed less and less as they move up the organizational ladder.

While their linear way of thinking has undoubtedly served them well in creating elegant, efficient software, for example, they need to develop their non-linear thinking skills in order to become strong leaders who make an impact on their teams, departments and companies. The higher you move up in an organization, the broader your lens needs to be. But learning to rewire your brain to take a broader perspective can be both psychologically and emotionally challenging.

Coaching Linear Thinkers

I’ve worked with a lot of clients who are linear thinkers. They can be challenging because their thinking can be rigid and lack flexibility. Their emotional intelligence is sometimes less developed than is ideal. They consider everything in a binary framework of right or wrong, making processing the gray areas of leadership challenging.

So, often in session, when a client is sharing a story, I test them in the moment. I challenge their assumptions, assessments and assertions and challenge them to give me other perspectives. I’ll show them how other perceptual lenses can be applied to that same example and how to ask open-ended questions when attempting to solve a problem. And once you repeatedly model that, they start to become more flexible in their thinking. We also work deeply on communication: how to listen more effectively while considering other points of views other than just their own. It’s an exercise in flexing that curiosity muscle so that they become interested in learning more about something when they would normally come from the perspective of “I already know.”

From “I Already Know” to “I Want to Know More”

That mindset was especially present with a very high potential executive coaching client, Sue (not her real name) who worked in the rapidly-growing technology field. She had her sights set on the C-suite, yet her thinking was very black and white. She didn’t take input unless it fit with her view, and she only deeply listened to the opinions she wanted to hear. Sue’s employees didn’t feel heard, valued or appreciated. There was no development or growth and as a result, there was high turnover in her company as she constantly lost good people due to her management style.

Like Jon, when Sue got the results of her 360 evaluation, she was shocked. After all, she had been promoted multiple times and achieved lots of accolades in her career. She was a great producer, but that did not translate into being a good leader.

After working on self-awareness, empathy, curiosity, mindfulness and slowing down reactive tendencies for an entire year, Sue got a statistically significant different review from her colleagues. The difference in the numbers was staggering, as she had truly made a complete 180 in her management style. That transformation cemented her ascent to the C-suite. All that work centered around building emotional intelligence, curiosity and mindfulness paid off.

Overcoming Leadership Obstacles Associated with Linear Thinking

How can linear thinkers learn to “rebuild” their brain so that the primary lens through which they see the world allows them to become stronger leaders? The following strategies can help linear thinkers overcome their challenges in leadership roles:

  1. Increase flexibility — One of the core leadership challenges issues among linear thinkers is a tendency toward rigidity. Because of the way their brains process information, they view things as black or white. Their thoughts are not unlike the binary code upon which many of their products are based; things are either “on” or “off,” either right or wrong. Adopting a more flexible approach allows leaders to better adapt when situations veer off course, to exercise more resilience in the face of challenges and to welcome innovation.
  2. Cultivate emotional intelligence — Linear thinkers often have difficulty connecting with and relating to others. Jon, for example, didn’t understand why he needed to forge any type of relationship with his team members. “We’re here to work, aren’t we?” he would say. In time, Jon learned that in order to work well together, developing healthy relationships with and among team members was essential. Effective leaders focus on impact and engagement, with the emotional bandwidth to understand the context and nuances of each situation in order to positively affect the organization, its employees and its customers. The first place to start is by developing empathy, which allows them to see a situation from another’s perspective.
  3. Master somatic communication — Like many new leaders, Jon quickly learned that the majority of communication is non-verbal, transcending words. By walking down the hall averting eye contact, his message was clear: “I don’t really want to interact with you.” When Jon adopted a more open posture in meetings — arms uncrossed, leaning in rather than away from — the table, he found that it encouraged his team members to speak up and offer their opinions and ideas, which sparked productive dialogue.
  4. Seek opportunities for growth — Effective leaders seek personal and professional growth and are constantly evolving and developing in their leadership capacity. They read, attend workshops, take classes and are involved in organizations (professional, community and/or social). In their quest for growth, they are committed to creating new and/or modifying existing habits through repeated actions and thought patterns that form new neuropathways. Linear thinkers can use their skills — planning, executing, organizing, for example — to prioritize their development objectives and schedule them accordingly.
  5. Recognize blind spots — What skills are lacking or need refinement? As a result of the increased self-awareness they gain through executive coaching and/or 360 reviews, linear thinkers can make prudent decisions about what they need to do to increase their leadership effectiveness, including choosing the right partners to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rather than argue that one style of thinking is more important or practical than the other, every leader should strive to strike a balance between linear and non-linear thinking. By thinking outside of the box and becoming more fluid, a linear thinker opens up the possibilities for both themselves and the rest of their team.

Our MindMastery™ workshop program can help you identify your style of thinking and strike a balance between your brain for optimal performance in both your professional and personal life.

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