Does Katz (1955) say you can't teach thinking?

No, he doesn't. In fact, he says the opposite. And even if he did, his 'research' was based on anecdotal experience...[And also, no one else who is serious says it either.]

The purpose of this entry is to capture a relatively common conversation where many misconceptions about cognition are being offered as true with no evidence. I have removed any identifiers but try to capture the conversation and its flavor. This will help others who are part of such conversations to arrive at some semblance of the truth and not be confused by misinformation and shenanigans. It also makes it so that the next time I (or you) am faced with this kind of misinformation, I don't need to re-have the conversation. I can just send them this link.


I want to clear up a misconception that appears to be 'out there' that thinking or "conceptual thinking" cannot be taught or learned. As background I want to share part of a thread that provides some flavor for how deeply engrained this misconception is. In a recent social media post which suggested that systems thinking could be taught and learned, the backlash was immediate. Here are a few comments from the thread:

“how do you teach conceptual thinking?” [presumably sarcastic]*

“I'm curious too. Any answers?” [presumably sarcastic]

To which I answered:

“There are underlying patterns to thinking (cognition) that can be taught and learned. We focus on helping people to see those underlying patterns (metacognition).”

I then received the following response:

“Derek, what you saying is fundamentally not true. My post grad degree thesis was the morphology of carbon in liquid iron. I can tell you about micro and crystal structures. I can give you examples, but many people when looking down a microscope simple [sic] cannot recognise [sic] patterns. This is how their brains works."


"Research supports this summary ST [systems thinking] requires a high of conceptual thinking. This innate and cannot be taught"

This of course makes little sense, unless the user is proposing that they were born with this pattern-recognition skill. If not, then they learned it, and therefore so too can others.

One user tried to suggest a few strategies and was immediately mocked.

“I guess I would try using abstracts and metaphors”

“Good luck.” [presumably sarcastic]

To which the user responded patiently:

“if it is felt that people largely have an inability to understand conceptual thinking because it is a natural talent and not typically taught, then abstract examples and metaphors might well help to bring out this kind of thinking - a certain amount of second order thinking is required - this is an abc way of pulling out the thoughts surely?”

Still another user characterized how the teaching of thinking might go [presumably sarcastically]:

“First session: ‘I want you to think conceptually - go!’”

Another user asked directly:

“Derek so you are saying you can teach people to think conceptually?”

I, of course, answered an unabashed "yes" which is consistent with modern cognitive and neuroscience research.

Meanwhile more users used sarcasm to suggest that humans are either born with thinking or not, implying it could not be taught (an idea that is outdated and not supported by modern cognitive science or neuroscience research):

“OMG teaching "conceptual thinking". You either got it or you don't. LOL”

Another user replied:

“this is my belief too. Maybe I'm wrong but I really don't see how. Maybe these guys have discovered something none of us or the universities have. What do you think? I would expect to have seen a peer reviewed article or at least a white paper by now. To me this if true is an amazing breakthrough."

To which I replied,

"I've published many peer reviewed papers and written 8 books on the topic. See them here: There are over 150 empirical studies that point to the DSRP patterns."[2]

I asked, “not sure what you mean by 'conceptual thinking.'” And received the following answer:

“ah that explains it. Conceptual thinking is one of the 3 basic technical skills defined by Robert Katz in 1955. Some can and some can't. Most can't in fact. It's very helpful having conceptual thinking as without it I doubt if system thinking is even possible”

So it appears that the issue people are having is with Katz 1955 paper entitled, Skills of an Effective Administrator [1]. Indeed, what Katz actually says in his paper is nothing like what people are claiming in this thread. Quite the opposite actually.

The problem is, the paper doesn’t say conceptual skills cannot be taught or learned, or that they are inborn. In addition, the conceptual model the paper builds on (3 leadership abilities) is based on the authors’ anecdotal experience, not on empirical evidence, multiple (or even one) research studies pointing to the same conclusions, or a meta analytical study. The paper contains no data, no sample, no method. Not to mention that the paper is nearly 70 years old (occurring prior to modern advances in cognitive and neuroscience!). But of course, none of that really matters because it isn’t what the paper actually says!

Katz defines ‘conceptual skill’ as follows:

“As used here, conceptual skill involves the ability to see the enterprise as a whole; it includes recognizing how the various functions of the organization depend on one another, and how changes in any one part affect all the others; and it extends to visualizing the relationship of the individual business to the industry, the community, and the political, social, and economic forces of the nation as a whole. Recognizing these relationships and perceiving the significant elements in any situation, the administrator should then be able to act in a way which advances the overall welfare of the total organization.” [1]

He goes onto explain it again as,

"These attitudes are a reflection of the administrator's conceptual skill (referred to by some as his "creative ability") — the way he perceives and responds to the direction in which the business should grow, company objectives and policies, and stockholders' and employees' interests. Conceptual skill, as defined above..." [1]

Indeed, it appears that Katz is saying precisely the opposite—that conceptual skills (and technical and human skills) can be learned as they are "not born." In Katz' (1955) [1] conclusion he writes:

"The purpose of this article has been to show that effective administration depends on three basic personal skills, which have been called technical, human, and conceptual. The administrator needs: (a) sufficient technical skill to accomplish the mechanics of the particular job for which he is responsible; (b) sufficient human skill in working with others to be an effective group member and to be able to build cooperative effort within the team he leads; (c) sufficient conceptual skill to recognize the interrelationships of the various factors involved in his situation, which will lead him to take that action which achieves the maximum good for the total organization.
The relative importance of these three skills seems to vary with the level of administrative responsibility. At lower levels, the major need is for technical and human skills. At higher levels, the administrator's effectiveness depends largely on human and conceptual skills. At the top, conceptual skill becomes the most important of all for successful administration.
This three-skill approach emphasizes that good administrators are not necessarily born; they may be developed. It transcends the need to identify specific traits in an effort to provide a more useful way of looking at the administrative process. By helping to identify the skills most needed at various levels of responsibility, it may prove useful in the selection, training, and promotion of executives." [1]

Don't get me wrong, Katz' paper is a worthwhile read. There's nothing wrong with it. It is not a criticism of his paper to say that it has no data, methods, or research to speak of or that it is 70 years old—those are just factual statements. That does not mean the paper has no value. It does. But the paper doesn't say what some folks are saying it does.


The Misinformation Goes on...

I thought that covered the issue well-enough. But the claims that "you can't teach thinking" and "you're either born with it or not" continued. So, I asked for "any shred of evidence" that supports these conclusions. There was a lot of hemming and hawing and opinion. But one person on the thread shared that there was such a study! The study they offered was:

"by Boyatiz, McClelland, Spencer and Spencer into behavioural competences for the US Gov concluded that about 5% of the population exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate."

So, I looked into this study and here is what I responded.

I appreciate the reference. So, I did a little digging. I apologize in advance for the long post. But, unfortunately a lot of inaccurate things are being said on this thread and so it takes a bit to walk through, step-by-step and uncover the truth. Net-net, [names], what you are saying AND ALSO, MORE IMPORTANTLY, what you are saying THESE RESEARCHERS are saying, is simply, patently, false.

There is no "study by Boyatiz, McClelland, Spencer and Spencer" [that I could find using Cornell's Library (one of the best in the world)]. However, McClelland and Spencer and Spencer have published quite a bit together and they reference the same topic (competency) as does Boyatiz and Spencer. So, you're right that these folks are "birds of a feather" who study the same thing. Now, what do they study? Competencies. Those include a whole host of things, one set of which is 'conceptual thinking.'

Rather than bore everyone with the details, I'll get to the point, because there are many many papers and books to read through. I however focused on their most recent peer-reviewed studies. The net-net, as I said is, you “can teach thinking” and you’re not “either born with it or not.”

Indeed, their entire research agenda could be summarized as: "competency-based selection, feedback, training, and performance management."[4]  Which in turn can be summarized in two-fold ways: [1] SELECTING people through recruitment and hiring who ALREADY HAVE the competencies one desires (this focuses on the reliable measurement of competencies) and [2] TRAINING them in competencies they DO NOT HAVE using “feedback, training, and performance management.”[4]

Indeed, in their peer-reviewed empirical study, Boyatzis, et. al (2012) [4] tell us this in no uncertain terms in the section entitled “practical Implications” which in research circles is the place the author is required to make a concise statement of what the study says and its import. They write,

“Initial competency research using empirical methods should be used to help focus competency models used for selection, feedback, training, and performance management.” [4] 

Note that three out of four of those items (feedback, training, and performance management) are for people who do not yet have the competency desired!

In, Spencer [3] in a section entitled, Return-on-investment (Pp. 22), he writes,

“Reanalysis of Morrow et. al.’s (1997) data on effect size and return-on-investment from 18 training programs (Spencer & Morrow, 1996) found that: [1] Traditional theory and knowledge training returned an average of 87 percent return-on-investment [2] Competency-based training, defined as those programs that taught trainees [sic] practice motivation and behavioral skills and had them practice these skills shifted performance curve .70 standard deviation and effected an average of 700 percent return-on-investment. Both traditional and competency-based training were effective and economically cost-justified, but competency-based training produced almost twice the improvement in performance, and eight times the return-on-investment.”[3] 

On page 17, he writes:

“Research over the last 10 years has shown that competency based staffing can shift performance .25 to .50 S.D., worth 5 to 25 percent in low- to high-complexity jobs and 30 to 60 percent in sales jobs (Spencer & Morrow, 1996). Competency-based training and performance management shift performance .60 S.D>, worth 11 to 30 percent in low- to high-complexity jobs, and 30 to 72 percent in sales jobs (Morrow, Jarrett, & Rupinski, 1997; Burke & Day, 1986; Falcone, Edwards, & Day, 1986).”[3] 

That means competency-based TRAINING outperforms competency-based HIRING. If people were either “born with it or not” OR if “thinking cannot be taught” then this would not possibly be the data we would see.

And, he is clearly referring to higher level “conceptual thinking” skills as is evident by examples he uses before and after of high level executives and in [3] on Pp. 23 where he writes,

“If, as has been speculated (see Restack, 1994, pp. 57-58), managers assessed as ‘interpersonally insensitive’ (the number one reason for executive ‘derailment’ and failure; Lombardo & McCauley, 1988) have the right prefrontal lobe deficits, they may be offered cognitive therapy or training—or drugs—which enhance brain metabolism responsible for social perception and behavior. Cognitive methods that effectively change the brain (one definition of “education”) will invariably be adopted by corporate training and development.”[3] 

You should pause for a moment here and read that quote above again, because he is not referring to an average case of lacking competencies and resulting TRAINING. He is referring to someone with a “prefrontal lobe deficit”—a structural brain deficiency, not merely a lack of acquired skills. Certainly, if you’re born with a structural brain deficit and TRAINING can work, it can also work for those folks who are merely lacking the skill. 

I’ve patiently taken the time to review the “evidence” you have provided. What’s nice is that both the evidence I have provided and the evidence that you cite in “opposition” both agree: “you can teach thinking” and it's not a matter of “you’re either born with it or not.”

And On...

What about the "study" that was mentioned in the thread as "evidence" that thinking skills are innate and cannot be taught:

"by Boyatiz, McClelland, Spencer and Spencer into behavioural competences for the US Gov concluded that about 5% of the population exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate."

As I said, this study could not be found by that particular group of authors. But I did find a set of studies that resembled the statement in that it was in the "US Gov" and if one were to grossly misinterpret what actually happened one might conclude that "about 5% of the population exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate."

Indeed, Spencer (1997) documents what happened:

"In 1971, the U.S. State Department’s Information Service (USIS) approached McClelland when it found that applicants’ scores on the Foreign Service information officers’ (FSIOs) written exams did not predict success in the job as an FSIO (McClelland & Dailey, 1973). Scores from the General Aptitude Test battery and the General Background Knowledge Test were slightly negatively correlated with job performance (r=-.22, p<.10): The better the FSIO candidate did on the tests, the worse he or she did as a diplomat. Further, very few [emphasis added] minority candidates passed at the high levels required to be hired as an FSIO. Given the lack of validity of the test scores’ prediction of on-the-job success, the rejection of minority candidates was illegal discrimination against a protected class under civil rights law (McClelland & Dailey, 1972, 1973; McClelland, 1973).

McClelland’s challenge was to answer the question, If traditional aptitude measures don’t predict job performance, what does? McClelland [sic] response was, first, to ask the State Department for a criterion sample of superior FSIOs (those who ranked in the top 10 percent) and a contrasting sample of average or poor performers, or a mix of both. Second, McClelland and Daily (1972) developed a technique called the Behavioral Event Interview (BEI), which combined Flanagan’s (1954) critical incident method with the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) probes that McClelland developed over 30 years of studying motivation (McClelland, 1985)." [4, p. 2-3]

Spencer goes on to explain the several steps McClelland took to answer the question and remedy the discrepancy and that, through this process, McClelland discovered new measures that were reliable. Spencer continues: 

“These and other [new] nonacademic competencies, such as management skills and the ability to generate a number of promotional ideas, did predict successful performance in FSIO jobs and did not discriminate against candidates by race, sex, or socioeconomic status.” [4, p. 3]

In other words, the tests that were given in 1971, in which "very few minority candidates passed at the high levels required to be hired as an FSIO" [possibly the source of the '5% of the population' reference?] was a discriminatory test. And, the candidates didn't not-pass the test—they didn't pass at the "high levels required." Note also, the low rate of success "at the high levels required" was not for the general population (as is claimed repeatedly in the thread), but for a minority population.

Certainly, there is a preponderance of examples of 50 year old tests that did not take into account certain biases in the design of the test itself. Let's be clear, in case there is any doubt. To conclude that this set of events is "evidence" that "thinking skills are innate and cannot be taught" is a gross misinterpretation. Indeed, in the context of the rest of the chapter, and in light of other research by the same set of authors that explicitly says the opposite, it borders on willful ignorance

And on...

But that is not all folks! This willful ignorance becomes more explicit as the evidentiary noose tightens. To the set of responses above, I received the following:

"Derek, I have a copy of their research notes having worked with several of their researcher in the US"

To which I responded:

"Hmmm, do you think their research notes would contradict their published, peer-reviewed work? One would think they would put their best work forward in their published research.

That said, we do live in a post-fact world, so it is much more acceptable today to believe and promote whatever suits us, despite the evidence.

Still would be excited to find even one credible scientist who agrees with you, though. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see their data and review their analysis. Let me know if you dig anything up..."Derek, probably not, however, behavioural [sic] event interviewing and thematic analysis indicated few people exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate ability. Whether or not this is trainable is a moot point given western educations deep roots in analytical reductionist thinking. The research indicted while they was some improvement obtained via "training" conceptual thinking was not a preferred style.

To which, I received the following response:

"Derek, probably not, however, behavioural [sic] event interviewing and thematic analysis indicated few people exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate ability. Whether or not this is trainable is a moot point given western educations deep roots in analytical reductionist thinking. The research indicted while they was some improvement obtained via "training" conceptual thinking was not a preferred style."

To which I replied:

"[Name] where’s that research?"

But [Name], you claimed that there is research again but provided no citation or reference or identifying details. Can you send me the research or some way to find it?

Also, are you saying that the point you've been making all along is moot? ("Whether or not this is trainable is a moot point"). Or that, the point you've been making is true only if one includes several hedges? ("was SOME improvement" and "was not a PREFERRED style").

Remarkably, this person is satisfied with simply stating the same thing, over and over. Referencing "research" but failing to produce a name, date or any identifying properties or citations. Confronted with the contradicting evidence, they back away from the binary statements they started with and offer a hedge, "Whether or not this is trainable is a moot point.." So, the point which was the basis of the entire conversation is now moot. They proceed with handwaving (another rhetorical tactic) and redirecting blame utilizing a laundry list of big words:  western educations; deep roots; analytical reductionist thinking. Another hedge follows [emphasis added]: "The research indicted while they was some improvement obtained via "training" conceptual thinking was not a preferred style." Still, no link. No citation. No research. Just opinion and bluster.

One thing they said indicates that the guess as to which "research" they were referring to may be correct: "however, behavioural event interviewing and thematic analysis indicated few people exhibited conceptual thinking as an innate ability." The US Department of State FSIO studies that Spencer discusses did involve interviewing and thematic analysis. So, 

This is how it goes in a post-fact world where confirmation bias, rather than systems thinking is increasingly the norm. Even in the face evidence to the contrary, we tend to stick to our beliefs.

I'll wait and see if there are more "studies" that incontrovertibly show that thinking cannot be taught or that it is only innate. I'd even settle for far less than incontrovertible I said, if one could find even "one credible scientist" which is actually even less than what I previously asked them for:

"I’m setting the bar exceptionally low. Even a shred of valid evidence that supported the idea that “you’re born with it or not” or “you can’t teach thinking” to support the many claims you and others are making in this thread. If you could find even a single published peer reviewed paper that suggested such things, post year 2000 I’d be thrilled to read it."

So, there you have it. For now. I eagerly await "even one credible scientist who agrees" with the idea that thinking cannot be taught or that it is only an innate skill. Let me know if you dig anything up! 



*I include a note that these statements are "presumably sarcastic" to accurately represent the thread's context, not to put my own spin on it. I use the term presumably, because one cannot be 100% sure, but I suspect most readers of the thread would conclude that these statements were obviously sarcastic.


1. Katz, Robert. Skills of an Effective Administrator. Harvard BusinessReview. 1955; Jan–Feb. 1955. Available:

2. Cabrera D, Cabrera L, Cabrera E. A Literature Review of the Universal Patterns and Atomic Elements of Complex Cognition. In: Cabrera D, Cabrera L, Midgley G, editors. The Handbook of Systems Thinking. Routledge; 2020.

3. Spencer, L. (1997) Competency Assessment Methods. In, Russ-Eft, D. F., Bassi, L. J. (Eds.). Assessment, Development, and Measurement. United States: American Society for Training and Development.)

4. Richard E. Boyatzis, Geoff Ryan, & Lyle M. Spencer. (2012). Development and validation of a customized competency-based questionnaire : Linking social, emotional, and cognitive competencies to business unit profitability. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 19(1), 90–103)