It’s widely accepted that if you want your company to survive, you need to hire people who can think for themselves.

Most companies seek to do this in the first place; understandably they want people who can become autonomous and don’t require constant discipline and hand-holding.

But knowing the difference between thinking for yourself and “Big Picture Thinking” can be the key between success vs survival.


Human beings are a very dynamic bunch; I firmly believe we’re all capable of engaging in any of the following modes of thinking on some level at any given time. Each one serves its purpose, and this article is not meant to cast anyone in a negative light (except for toxic thinking, which serves no purpose but will be covered as well). As a matter of fact, many people start on one end of the scale and progress towards the other as they gain experience.

With all of that said, let’s take a deeper look at the different types of thinking found in the workplace.

5 types of thinking found in the workplace

Short-term Thinking

A person thinking in the short-term might say something like: “Let’s increase tire pressure to create a lower rolling resistance so we can save on fuel costs.” They have identified a problem (fuel costs) and proposed a solution (inflating the tires). It sounds good on paper, right?

Critical Thinking

Suddenly, someone else jumps in and says “Not so fast! If we increase tire pressure, it will create a dangerous situation because the tires are more likely to pop!” This person is a critical thinker. They’ve thought one step ahead of the short-term, identifying what the possible repercussions of the plan might be.

Long-term Thinking

Now everyone is engaged – they’ve started a discussion and another person pipes up “I know! Let’s invest in lower rolling resistance tires. It will cost more money in the short-term but over the long-term they’ll be safer than over-inflated tires and still save money on fuel!” Long term thinking combines short-term thinking with critical thinking and then calculates a solution based on those aspects.

“Big Picture” Thinking

Suddenly the big picture thinker puts his hand up and everyone rolls their eyes. “We shouldn’t waste money on tires. The whole fleet is past it’s prime. We’ve been spending more and more on repairs each year, replacing tires at this point is like putting lipstick on a pig. I’ve done the math and if we upgrade the fleet to the newer more fuel-efficient model, we’ll be able to haul more cargo than our competition and spend less money on fuel.”

These people are movers and shakers. They see a problem and they literally ask “Why not?”

Toxic Thinking

“Yeah, good luck with that” says the short-term thinker, shutting down the big picture thinker and engaging in a little toxic thinking in the process.

“That’s enough” says the manager. “It’s a good suggestion, but we just don’t have the budget for that right now.”

He or she then proceeds to place it in their list of ideas that never see the light of day. Alternatively, if the manager is also of the toxic thinking variety, they will take the idea and make it their own so they look good in front of their boss, thus ensuring the big picture thinker never receives any credit.

So why is the BPT being treated poorly? Keep reading to find out!

Toxic thinking is a threat to company culture and should be avoided at all costs

Why BPTs and other thinkers don’t mix

BPTs are often misunderstood and characterized by some counterintuitive traits, thus leading people to confuse them with toxic thinkers (conveniently they make perfect scapegoats for the real toxic thinkers). BPTs:

-Often appear introverted, uncomfortable with office politics and awkward in social situations (in reality they are very focused on problem solving)

-Can take a longer period of time to reach a solution, in which case they often clash with “results based” managers

-Often clash with co-workers they perceive as “lazy”, especially when said co-workers complain about a specific problem without offering any feedback, help or solutions of their own

-Are often mistaken for being egotistical or not being a team player (in reality they’ve already done the math and they don’t want to re-explain themselves a dozen times while they wait for everyone else to catch up or “get it”).

-Are driven mad by repetitive and menial tasks, often reaching burnout much faster than their co-workers when forced to pursue what they perceive to be meaningless endeavors. By contrast, their co-workers are happy to keep doing these tasks so long as they get paid.

-Challenge the status quo. Their solutions often cause a disturbance in the “company ecosystem”. People tend to get comfortable the longer they’ve been in a role, so when a big picture thinker comes along and automates a manual task, people feel threatened by that change (especially if said automation is a threat to something they were doing in order to appear productive in the first place).

  • Are detailed and have a total disregard for “don’t ask, don’t tell”. They tend to pull out all the dust bunnies that were swept under the carpet, and most people hate picking up dust bunnies (let alone explaining to the boss how they got there in the first place).

  • Tend to be direct and don’t usually mince words. People hate being wrong, but BPTs will tell them straight up when something is wrong, which for many people is the equivalent of hearing “you’re flat out stupid”. In other words they’re perceived as lacking emotional intelligence because they tend to focus on the root of the problem instead of how the other person feels.

  • Ironically BPTs are perceived as not being able to handle criticism well, but a surprising number of people in the workplace possess this trait and those people who can’t handle criticism are the ones that clash with BPTs more often than any others.

Big picture thinkers often clash with their co-workers

Understanding the difference between a BPT and a toxic person (breaking down the counter-intuitive)

-BPTs look for solutions. They’re “doers” not “destroyers”

-BPTs ask “how and why” not “who and what”

-BPTs are introspective. They feel bad when they make mistakes. In the case of IT, a BPT will be highly critical of themselves if they cause an outage or disruption

-BPTs may appear manipulative from time to time, but they don’t actively seek out revenge (nor do they lay traps). Instead, they let people bury themselves. Similarly, it’s important to note that being “smart” does not equate to seeing the big picture

-BPTs love to learn, whereas a toxic thinker will blame others when they don’t understand something “It’s too complicated” and force any work related to those topics onto the people who do know it (or use it as an excuse to throw that person under the bus).

-BPTs care about the company’s identity on a deep level. They may not engage in office social events but they’ll be the last ones to leave when the proverbial “S” hits the “F”

-BPTs love to teach anyone who will listen. For this reason, junior workers tend to gravitate towards them because they perceive them as “smart”, whereas a toxic person will purposely withhold knowledge in order to protect themselves or make themselves look good

On the plus side, Big Picture Thinkers:

-Are often perceived as “smart” or possessing a lot of knowledge. They make excellent teachers if nurtured into that role

-Embrace change. Because of this, it’s possible to integrate them better into the workforce with emotional sensitivity / communications / leadership training

-Are master strategists. A BPT with leadership traits can make an excellent manager, but don’t relegate them to middle management (they’ll find it boring because they hate dealing with office politics). Put them into a strategic position instead, like project management.

-Can take your company to new heights when given a chance to flourish. Groom them and mentor them well enough to speak executive aka projected cost vs return on investment, and as a business owner you’ll end up being so happy with the results that you might want to give them a stake!

Big picture thinkers are master strategists

Nurturing and keeping a BPT

-They need to be challenged and learning constantly. Never allow them to grow stagnant in their role

-They don’t like distractions. It’s not that they’re incapable of multitasking; they just produce far better results when they’re allowed to focus on the task at hand

-Reward them appropriately and let them know their work is appreciated. Be sincere (don’t just give them a handshake or a pat on the back). Show them the fruits of their labor. If they are responsible for doubling customer engagement or stopping a total systems meltdown, put your money where your mouth is by giving them a bonus or added time off

  • They often demand a higher pay grade (more on that in a moment).

Areas of caution

-Think of a BPT’s brain as a sports car. High octane cars take high octane fuel. Like a sportscar, BPTs can be expensive to operate. They can be high maintenance people. Not only do they burn out faster; they also see the big picture in their own lives, which means they need to reap the fruits of their labors and experience the world at large equal to the effort they put in at work. They need enough money and time off for engaging in their hobbies and possibly travelling.

-When a BPT gets very quiet, it can indicate they’re extremely unhappy (but not always, as it can also indicate that they’re entrenched in deep thought)

-BPTs are fiercely loyal, but it’s counter-intuitive (noticing a pattern about counter-intuitiveness here?) meaning they change jobs a lot. If and when they do quit, it’s something they’ve thought about for a long time and will continue to think about afterwards (it’s like breaking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend).
-When they do leave, it often comes without warning and may shock the employer (beware, BPTs may not give 2 weeks notice!)

Big picture thinkers have high-performance minds so they need a little more maintenance

Conclusion: self thinking vs universal thinking

(Why you should hire big picture thinkers)

So what does it mean to engage in “Big Picture Thinking”? Well it might seem like the point of this article is to imply that BPTs are somehow smarter than ordinary thinkers, but that is not the case at all. To digress slightly, you can be smart without being a Big Picture Thinker and vice versa.

No, “Big Picture Thinking” while it appears at first glance to be some sort of metaphor for “hiring smart people” actually goes way beyond the workplace.

“Big Picture Thinking” means thinking about the whole canvas, whereas self-thinking means thinking for yourself.

You don’t have to follow natural psychology or anything like that in order to understand the core concept. Just know that BPTs tend to think about everything that goes on around them (they focus less on menial tasks and focus more on effecting change) and self-thinkers tend to think about, well, doing a good job so they can receive a paycheck.

This doesn’t mean self-thinkers are bad workers. In fact, self-thinkers are necessary for many aspects of the business. And as I stated in the beginning of this article, many people (BPTs included) are capable of engaging in all of the described modes of thinking (even toxic thinking, sadly).

What it does mean is if you want your business to have an edge, you should make a habit of hiring, nurturing, training and growing Big Picture Thinkers into the right role – and in return, they’ll help you grow your business to new heights.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Stay tuned for part 2, where next week I’ll show you how Big Picture Thinkers are critical for running your IT infrastructure!