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28 Jul

Ask your manager this question to level up at work.

Yesterday, I wrote an essay on the importance and benefits of using rules of thumb in any sort of practice. As the piece was getting way too long for my liking, I decided to omit a useful tip towards the end that I wish to share with you today.

If you haven't read yesterday's piece, I recommend you go and read it first and then come back to this one.

Okay, done? Let's proceed.

After publishing yesterday's piece, I came across this study that aimed to find out if general practitioners (GPs) in medicine recognized the use of rules of thumb and if they could describe what they looked like.

And what I found out was largely in agreement with what I covered in yesterday's piece. The methodology of the study involved using focus group interviews, with the interview guide containing questions like:

Do you recognize the use of rules of thumb?

Are you able to give some examples?

What are the benefits and dangers in using rules of thumb?

Where do they come from?

Here are some quotes from the general practitioners who participated in this study:

“I guess you are forced to simplify for yourself a little. Put things in order in your life. I couldn’t stand to have such a huge scheme to follow and think of for every patient, so you have to create some shortcuts.”

“The textbooks have certainly complicated our lives enormously. If we take chest pains now... Before you can conclude that there possibly could be a psychogenic anxiety or something like that in the picture, you first have to exclude ten or fifteen organic causes. But over the years you learn that it doesn’t work to practice that way. Then you are actually forced to work based on shortcuts from your own experience.”

The way a rule of thumb was defined for the general practitioners in these study was:

“... a mental pattern that could be made conscious, used during consultation, was action-oriented, used whether or not the background for the rule was understood, and was not based on knowledge of the actual patient (as an individual).”

The GPs in every focus group recognized using rules of thumb and produced 30–40 examples of rules per group. In two of the groups there were one or two doctors who only contributed a few rules, but admitted that they used rules, especially while dealing with patients with acute illnesses.

Here are a few examples:

“It's a typical rule of thumb of mine — if the patient has an earache and I examine their ears and it's otitis media, I won't do anything more.”

“If they are stiff-necked or not, but are able to raise their leg and then jump up and down a while... then it's sure as heck not meningitis.”

“When someone came in for something and maybe I didn't find anything and they return, then you should be particularly alert.”

“I have another rule of thumb that I always or almost always ask what the patient herself thinks it's about. Before I've finished. And sometimes quite at the beginning.”

“If a patient confides very delicate matters I see about arranging another consultation soon, since the patient sometimes feels remorse afterwards.”

Now, the reason I'm sharing this study with you in a business and careers newsletter may feel odd.

But hear me out.

The GPs in the study acknowledged the benefits of using these rules of thumb for simplifying work. The rules they shared appeared to be a type of immediate knowledge, which was not really conscious and can be called tacit knowledge.

“Using the rules helped the doctor to deal with the inevitable uncertainty in praxis and could explain the higher degree of decisiveness among GPs with longer experience noted in earlier studies.”

Now, it is quite likely that your manager has many of these too: simple heuristics they tacitly and subconsciously apply while thinking about any problem.

If every week, you simply spend 30 minutes to an hour discussing these with them, it will not only help you understand how your manager thinks about stuff and improve your mental model of your manager, it will also help you turn into a much better thinker. Of course, if you think that your manager has no clue about your work and hasn't done the kind of work you're doing, then this advice doesn't apply.

But if you're blessed with a highly experienced manager, who was once a superstar individual contributor, you might be leaving a lot of useful learning on the table if you don't take the initiative and ask them how they think about specific problems, what their approach is, what rules of thumb they unconsciously apply and why these rules of thumb work.

And if you have a good manager, they will appreciate it too. Because the last thing any good manager wants is more management. If they can help you improve your judgment and decision-making so that you have to bother them less often, they will likely jump at this opportunity.

And the rule-of-thumb frame works brilliantly because if you try to unfold the years of experience and tacit reasoning that goes behind these simple crystallizations, you will uncover a lot of useful detail that will help you upskill in your craft, without needing any additional course or program.

A good manager who also acts like a mentor is the best upskilling course one can have. And if you have one, try asking them this simple question:

How would you personally approach <insert specific work problem here>?

What are some things you observe and orient your thinking around?

What are some rules of thumb you follow?

Do you have a checklist in your head while thinking about such problems? A list of questions you tend to ask often?

If you probe well, trust me, you will unlock a treasure trove of insight from your manager. And here's an even more interesting side-effect:

Since the use of rules of thumb is for the most part unconscious, even your manager would want to identify and articulate their own intuition and subconscious rules to check for hidden flaws or biases. The exercise not only helps you but helps your manager as well.

Try it!

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15k+ business professionals act on our advice every day. You should too.