Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles

Maximizing Your Team's Effectiveness

Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles - Maximizing Your Team's Effectiveness

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Which thinking styles do your team members use?

If you had to define your perfect team, where would you start?

You'd likely want each member of it to be smart, honest and positive, and it goes without saying that you'd want them all to be highly collaborative. However, you can probably recall teams that looked promising on paper but which didn't fulfill their potential.

Teams can underperform for many reasons, and mismatching people with positions and responsibilities is a common one. Teams are about more than just what people do, though. How people think is also a powerful indicator of group performance. But managers and team members alike often overlook individual thinking styles when working with one another or when recruiting.

Using Thinking Styles, a framework developed by authors Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele, is an effective way to gain an understanding of people's thinking skills, abilities and preferences, and how these can help your team.

In this article, we'll explore how you can use Bonchek and Steele's model to understand how you and your team members think and interact, so that you can improve your team's effectiveness.

Understanding Thinking Styles

Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles is a simple framework for assessing how you think, and for matching your style to your group's purpose. It's an alternative to models that look at how team members behave, and it provides a way to focus on the often-overlooked aspect of personality in the workplace.

According to Bonchek and Steele, two things determine your thinking style – your "focus" and your "orientation."

Your focus is the target of your attention, such as what typically interests you most about a situation. You might be drawn toward processes, or you might be attracted to ideas, actions or relationships.

Your orientation depends on whether you angle your attention toward the big picture or the fine details.

Focus and orientation together produce the eight thinking styles shown in Figure 1, below.

Figure 1 – Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles

Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review and Mark Bonchek. From "What Kind of Thinker Are You?" by Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele, November 2015. Copyright © 2015 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Let's explore each thinking style in more detail:

  • Explorers are imaginative thinkers. They drive innovation, generate new ideas, and provide sparks of creativity.
  • Experts are your go-to people for subject knowledge. They provide the detail that underpins new ideas.
  • Planners excel at designing new workflows, systems and processes. They're logical, step-by-step thinkers.
  • Optimizers are skilled critical thinkers. They look for ways to get the best from processes, to maximize output, quality and efficiency.
  • Energizers have a get-up-and-go quality to their thinking. When you want to motivate or excite people, energizing thinkers are the team members you need.
  • Producers focus on the end result. They provide the impetus to turn ideas into results.
  • Connectors bring people together. They're the glue that holds opposite thinkers together and helps them to work as members of a team.
  • Coaches focus their thinking on other people. They are at their best when helping others to grow and develop.


Bear in mind that Thinking Styles is one of many models for assessing how people might fit best in a team, and it won't provide you with solid direction. Other tools, such as Belbin's Team Roles, Benne and Sheats' Group Roles, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™, for example, take quite different approaches, based on varied research. So, try this model to see whether it's appropriate for you, but take care, be flexible, and use your best judgment.

How Thinking Styles Can Help You

Thinking Styles is a straightforward model to use. Simply consider where your focus and orientation usually fall, and use the grid in Figure 1 to identify your thinking style. You may discover that you have more than one thinking style (primary and secondary).


Work out where you fit on these two dimensions by taking the authors' own short Discover Your WorkType test online.

When you've identified your thinking style, you can begin to forge a defined "thinking role" for yourself within your team. This can lead to a stronger professional identity, greater awareness of your value to the team, and more productive, natural collaboration. It can also make it easier to focus on work that invigorates you, and to cut out tasks that are less satisfying.

Encouraging others to identify their own thinking styles, and to share their findings, is also important. Better collaboration is one of the main goals of Thinking Styles and, for this to happen, people need to know and appreciate the value of how their colleagues think.

As a manager, knowing the diversity of thinking styles within your team makes it easier to match people with tasks that motivate them, and to get the most from each person. You can even assign specific thinking roles (as well as doing roles), so that everyone knows where to turn for help with particular challenges, and equally who to avoid.

According to researcher M.J. Petroni, your team members can also form "thought partnerships" with one another. These are mutually beneficial, collaborative relationships between people with complementary thinking styles.

Make sure that you consider people's thinking styles when you devise their goals and development plans. If you can align the two, and ensure that they work on tasks that match their styles, you'll encourage higher levels of job satisfaction and retention.

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You could even adapt the Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles model to build an analysis of how people think into your interviewing technique. Diversity of thought can be as valuable as diversity of experience, gender, ethnicity, and so on. By focusing on how people think, you can identify any missing styles, and fill potential gaps within your team by recruiting candidates who have them.

Key Points

Bonchek and Steele's Thinking Styles is a useful tool for considering how the way you think can benefit you and the people you work with.

Whether you want to boost the effectiveness of your team, help people work together, or assess how you work, Thinking Styles can help you to develop a greater awareness of how you and others think and interact. It can open up new possibilities for collaboration, and change the way that you build and manage teams and relationships.

Apply This to Your Life

When you've found your lead style (and perhaps your secondary style, too), ask yourself how your way of thinking benefits your team. Consider, too, whether you might be able to contribute and help your team in new ways.

Appreciate the other styles. Some may seem alien, but each one is valuable. By understanding the other styles of thinking, you make yourself more aware of how valuable your colleagues could be.