Critical thinking is one of the most sought out skills by employers. The ability to think critically and pivot is a must in today’s workplace. Critical thinking requires an open mind to possible complex decision-making and causes you to think about issues beyond face value. With the world moving a million miles a minute, customers expect company employees to understand an issue and solve it with ease.
What is Critical Thinking?
The Foundation for Critical Thinking describes critical thinking as, “The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
In more common terms, critical thinking is the ability to make the best possible decision in a given moment based on the information that is presented.
Why is Critical Thinking Important in the Workplace?
The reason why critical thinking skills can be so attractive to employers is that critical thinking ensures that issues are met with adaptability. Not one issue is too large for the critical thinker. When someone has the ability to think critically, it means that they are likely able to present multiple solutions to one problem. In today’s workplace that is important because critical thinking is met with a thorough thought process, which in turn helps develop the best possible outcome for both the customer and the business.
A Harvard Business Review article explained the high demand for critical thinking skills in employees and new graduates. The article further explained, “According to a 2016 survey of 63,924 managers and 14,167 recent graduates, critical thinking is the number one soft skill managers feel new graduates are lacking, with 60% feeling this way. This confirms what a Wall Street Journal analysis of standardized test scores given to freshmen and seniors at 200 colleges found: the average graduate from some of the most prestigious universities shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years. Employers fare no better. Half rate their employees’ critical thinking skills as average or worse.”
If critical thinking is so valuable, why is it so hard to find within employees?
The lack of critical thinking skills in the job pool may be due to the lack of challenges presented to employees on a daily basis. Placing employees in hard decision-making situations creates employees with great critical thinking skills. The more you challenge employees and have them evaluate and synthesize an issue, the more adaptability and independence you will foster.
When employees are trained to follow directions, they are conditioned to not make many independent choices throughout their day. If employees are dedicating 40 hours a week at a minimum to their career, that hardly leaves any additional time to be continually challenged outside of work. Because some employees are taught by their leaders to only follow directions, this can create a co-dependent relationship causing the employee to rely on others to make crucial decisions. To avoid creating codependency, if in a leadership position, create and inspire your employees by educating them on how to work through problems on their own. For example, you can create tasks and assignments for your employees that will help them develop a skill. You can also challenge their comfort zone by giving them tasks that will challenge them. You can even get creative and create a team-building session where multiple people on your team are working together to solve a complex issue. Critical thinking isn’t linear. That’s the point. Critical thinking requires everyone to be adaptable and think outside of the box.
I personally love it when someone on my team asks me a question because my first question is, “what do you think we should do?” By asking this question, it allows me to evaluate my teammate’s current mindset and build onto their thought process. I don’t always want to work with someone who thinks like me. Having people on my team who can use their perspective, life experiences, and ideas to add so much value to our company culture. This is how you create inclusivity and diversity in the workplace.
When I teach a new skill to someone on my team, I follow a three-step process:
- Teach: I do. You watch.
- Shadow: You do. I watch.
- Reflect: You do without me. You self-reflect. Then, we reflect together.
It’s important for employees to see their leader in action and discuss the things they notice. It’s also important for employees to try something new while their leader is present, so the leader can give feedback along the way. It’s just as important to then have your employees try the new skill on their own and self-reflect on their biggest accomplishments and their own areas of improvement.
I often ask myself, in my own self-reflection, these two questions, and I encourage others to ask these questions as well:
- What did I love?
- What did I learn?
These two simple questions help break down the wins and losses after trying something new, and they help you become a better you. These two questions are universal. For example, sometimes I lead intimidating meetings or presentations. Once I’ve overcome my fear and limiting self-beliefs, after the meeting I ask myself these two questions. On another note, when I teach others on my team something new, like how to have assertive conversations, I self-evaluate my teaching and ask myself those two questions.
Biases That Affect Our Every Day Decision Making
Another reason why critical thinking can be a hard skill to develop is due to our own personal biases that cloud our judgment when making decisions. Everyone has biases, it is human nature, but what we might not realize is that biases often unconsciously cause us to make certain decisions. It is important to bring awareness to the distinct types of biases we undergo psychologically, so we can understand how we commonly think our way to our decisions. In an article published by Psychology Today, Dr. Christopher Dwyer explains various biases we undergo. Here is a couple:
- Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is described as favoring ideas that confirm our own beliefs. Dwyer explains that one way to overcome confirmation bias is by considering as many sides to a situation as possible. That isn’t always easy because we usually tend to try to find evidence and facts that support our way of thinking. To be a critical thinker, you must keep an open mind to different ways of thinking, perspectives, and solutions. An example of confirmation bias is if I went to a colleague for their input, but I mainly went to them because they think the same way I do, with similar beliefs; therefore, their input is likely to mirror my original opinion instead of challenging it. In this situation, I could still go to colleague A, but I can also seek input from colleague B, who tends to think differently than I do. Have people in your corner who show you your blind spots.
- Optimism/Pessimism Bias: Dwyer describes the Optimism/Pessimism Bias as “A tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes, particularly if we are in a good humor, and to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes if we are feeling down or have a pessimistic attitude.” This bias is important to become aware of because it demonstrates how we can make emotional and irrational decisions. Neither emotional nor irrational decisions constitute great critical thinking. This bias means that if I am in a bad mood, I could possibly shut down at the idea of thinking outside of the box for a customer. By the same token, If I am in a good mood, I could possibly be overzealous and over-promise a customer beyond my capabilities. It’s important to be in a good headspace when making critical decisions.
Fallacies That Affect Our Every Day Decision Making
A fallacy can be described as a mistake of reasoning. When we make fallacious decisions, it’s because our beliefs are impairing our judgment to a certain extent. Oklahoma University describes fallacies as follows: “If I counted twenty people in the room when there were in fact twenty-one, then I made a factual mistake. On the other hand, if I believe that there are round squares, I believe something that is contradictory. A belief in “round squares” is a mistake of reasoning and contains a fallacy because, if my reasoning were good, I would not believe something that is logically inconsistent with reality.”
Below are a couple of fallacies that can be impacting your decision-making.
- Ad Hominem: Ad Hominem describes a situation in which you discard any evidence or situation simply because of the person who is making the point. For example, let’s say receptionist Joe is having trouble solving an issue for a customer. Joe has tried looking at the problem from different angles, but he still falls short of the solution. Joe’s critical thinking drives him to ask his co-workers for help. So far, so good! Then, Joe’s co-worker Ben gives him a possible solution. Joe does not like Ben, and he thinks Ben doesn’t always have the best intentions, so Joe ignores Ben’s advice because Joe doesn’t like Ben. That is Ad Hominem. Ben could have very likely given Joe the missing piece of the puzzle, but Joe allowed his judgment of Ben as a person to discard any validity of what he had to say. A critical thinker puts personal biases aside for the common good of the issue at hand. Your customers are depending on you to be their advocate. Ill feelings towards Ben and ignoring his advice doesn’t necessarily scream customer advocate.
- Hasty Generalization: Hasty Generalization is when you apply a belief to a large population, without much data. Hasty Generalization is like the person who hates all men. Think of your best friend and that ex-boyfriend of hers that was a not-so-nice person. A hasty generalization would be that because your best friend’s ex-boyfriend was bad, that all men are unequivocally bad as well. It is important to not generalize because critical thinking requires you to process information through a factual lens. Now on a professional level, let’s say receptionist Jane has two customers in a row calling saying they are having an issue with their product. This leads Jane to believe that all customers with that product are having that same problem, so Jane proceeds to alarm the higher-ups in her company saying that all clients are having this issue. Out of the company’s hundreds of clients, Jane made a generalization based on two people. Making generalizations when communicating information can also create a lot of back and forth between you, other departments, and your clients. Let’s say you communicated a generalized issue to your tech department. Your tech department then asks you two to three probing questions to get to the root of the issue. You then have to go back to the customer to obtain or relay more information, to then go back to the tech department, to then go back to the customer. Generalizations can be harmful because they can create distrust. With that much back and forth that was referenced in the example, the customer might start to grow impatient and skeptical of your ability to help. It may also cause frustration within the company. Generalizations can be avoided by skipping assumptions and replacing them with probing questions. Asking great questions is a perfect way to obtain as much factual information as possible.
Bloom’s Taxonomy refers to a hierarchal order of cognitive skills. Educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, coined the idea as a way to classify educational objectives. In Bloom’s hierarchy, the ability to analyze and evaluate is at the top of the hierarchy.
The ability to analyze is described as the ability to draw connections among ideas. The ability to evaluate is described as the ability to justify a stand or make a decision. The highest level of the hierarchy is the ability to create which is described as the ability to develop, formulate or investigate a new idea.
Bloom’s hierarchy is important to understand because the hierarchal order describes the process we use to critically think. We first try to understand a problem by trying to identify the issue to the best of our abilities. Next, we analyze the issue by asking questions. Then, we evaluate the information to try to critique and appraise possible solutions. Finally, based on what we understand and what we’ve analyzed and evaluated, we create the best solution given the information we gathered.
By understanding the hierarchy of these cognitive skills, you can build a higher level of thinking. When faced with a decision or problem, go through these steps and ultimately see what idea you create. Use your knowledge, develop questions, consider different perspectives and break those perspectives down to help you create a solution.
Plymouth Model of Critical Thinking
Similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Plymouth University founded a critical thinking model with three stages that can help you navigate through your decision-making process.
- Description Phase: Part of critical thinking is to ask great questions. The Plymouth Model suggests the use of what, when, who, and where questions to try to obtain an accurate description of the issue at hand.
- Analysis Phase: The questions why, how, and what if, allow you to go further in-depth on your findings from phase one and allow you to establish a process on how to move forward.
- Evaluation Phase: The evaluation phase consists of asking questions such as so what, and what next. These questions help you come to conclusions and solutions.
Benefits of Critical Thinking
Sharpening your critical thinking skills can add value to you in many different ways.
- Critical thinking leads to improved communication. One of the best benefits of exercising critical thinking is the heavy amount of communication it involves. Here is how Indeed describes the benefit of critical thinking, “If you’re making a work-related decision, proper communication with your coworkers will help you gather the information you need to make the right choice.”
- Critical thinking inspires curiosity. There are many benefits to being someone who raises questions and is curious to find different outcomes and solutions. Being curious allows you to ask questions, listen attentively and try new avenues. In Harvard Business Review’s article, “Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite,” it is mentioned that Michael Dell, the Chief Executive Officer of Dell, Inc., deemed curiosity the top trait to make it through tough times.
- Critical thinking produces creativity. One of the great attributes of being a critical thinker is the impact it has on your creativity. It’s important to use curiosity and creativity to see issues from different perspectives. Future Focused Learning states, “Creative people question assumptions about many things. Instead of arguing for limitations, creative minds ask “how” or “why not?” Creativity is eternal and it has limitless potential, which means we are unlimited as creative people.”
- Critical thinking drives adaptability. Critical thinking makes you work under pressure while you devise a strategic plan or answer for your customer. Critical thinking gives you permission to change directions when your current plan isn’t working. If there’s anything we’ve learned through the pandemic, it’s that knowing how to be flexible is important in today’s society. You never know when a wrench will be thrown your way and you’ll have to make critical decisions for the best of your customers.
Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking
- Narrow in on the issue: Whether the problem is simple or complex in nature, try to pinpoint the actual issue at hand. Referring back to the Plymouth Model, phase one is the description phase. Ask yourself and your client the questions listed within phase one. These questions will help you hone in on the issue and get clarification on what is happening when it’s happening, where it’s happening and to who the issue is happening to.
- Try switching things around: One way to think about an issue differently is to switch the issues around. College Info Geek explains switching issues around as the chicken and egg conundrum. At first glance, you may think that the chicken comes first, but after looking at it differently, you realize that there’s a possibility the egg came first. Don’t get stuck on one solution. Open your mind to the possibilities of multiple ways to solve an issue.
- Make a pro vs con list: When you’re unsure if you should follow through on a decision, make a list of all the pros that a solution can generate and the cons that can occur. Sometimes seeing decisions in list format helps us weigh the risk and benefit of a solution.
- Include more brains: One of my favorite traits about our Vice President of Operations, Marianne Mlechick, is that she always includes others in her decision-making. When she has a tough issue to solve or a complex decision to make, she always makes it a point to ask others for their opinions. Mlechick states, “The main reason I don’t only rely on myself is that I don’t know everything. Having others’ points of view gives me insight into my blind spots. Everyone has a unique idea or perspective to offer on an issue. The more people you include, the more buy-in you have into decisions you make.”
Working on autopilot can only get you so far. Critical thinking is a sought-after trait that will help you stand out in competitive markets. It’s a trait that can always be improved with time, and the more you practice critical thinking, the more your skills will evolve. Get good at asking questions and challenging the status quo. Use your resources and get input from those around you. Critical thinking can help you become an adaptable person who thrives in a plethora of different situations.