As businesses grow, so do the size and complexity of their problems and challenges. To solve those complex challenges and problems, leaders need to employ more critical thinking from themselves and their teams.
However, the world seems to be lacking critical thinking at a time when businesses need it most. And the lack of critical thinking isn’t just anecdotal tales told by frustrated leaders. There’s research to back it up. So, whatever happened to critical thinking and can we get it back?
Critical Thinking, Defined
First, let’s address the big question: what exactly is critical thinking? In the broadest terms, critical thinking is the ability to think reasonably, removing your own emotional attachment and personal bias.
Critical thinking requires individuals to rely on data and take the steps to analyze and evaluate data to make a decision. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”
It’s important to note that critical thinking helps you to avoid doing things simply because they’ve always been done a certain way or because a certain way seems easier or faster.
What has happened to critical thinking?
Has there really been a decline in critical thinking? There is research that shows this is a reality for many higher education institutions and businesses.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of standardized test scores given to freshmen and seniors found that the average graduate from prestigious institutions show little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.
That trend extends into the business world. In May 2016, a survey by PayScale and Future Workplace found that 60% of employers believe new college graduates lack critical thinking skills, based on a survey of over 76,000 managers and executives. Additionally, about half of employers rate their employees’ critical thinking skills as average or worse.
There is no one main reason for this decline in critical thinking. Most experts attribute it to a combination of things.
To start off with, there is not a clear definition of critical thinking and therefore, many professors, instructors and employers lack a way to objectively assess critical thinking skills. And many teachers struggle to teach critical thinking so many simply don’t do it. The Education Post found that only 1 out of 10 educators teach critical thinking and that teacher usually teaches at a selective school or to a select group of students.
And some experts say technology is one of the reasons for this decline. According to research by Patricia Greenfield, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles, as technology plays a bigger role, our skills in critical thinking have declined and our visual skills have improved.
Anecdotally, I think it’s important to point out that a decline in critical thinking in business might not be the actual decline in critical thinking. Rather, the decline in critical thinking is due to a lack of opportunities (or ignoring opportunities) to encourage critical thinking.
Many businesses are only looking for the fastest (and sometimes cheapest) way to a solution. Such an approach is an anti-pattern for critical thinking. When you’re always looking for shortcuts, you’re cutting out the time to critically think. When you’re too quick to say something isn’t working and that you need to change directions completely, you’re sabotaging critical thinking.
All of this probably sounds like bad news for those looking to increase critical thinking in their organizations. The good news is that critical thinking can be taught and if it’s encouraged enough in an organization, it will be taught!
How to Improve Critical Thinking
Contrary to many opinions, critical thinking is not a soft skill. It can be learned and it must be practiced to be developed. Here are a few steps that will help you tap into critical thinking.
- Gather more and better data
Critical thinking is the ability to remove your own bias from problem-solving and the best way to do that is to look at the data. Many organizations are trying to make decisions with poor data. As an organization, you need to prioritize having as much high-quality data as possible. And as the IT organization, you must collect this data and ensure that the organization is using it to its fullest ability.
2. Question assumptions
This is the most important piece to critical thinking — and it’s often the most difficult part. Don’t just look at the “what” of the problem. Ask about why it’s happening. Be wary of the assumptions you may bring to the table and when you come to a conclusion, ask yourself if you’re basing the conclusion on the matter at hand or on previous experiences. Additionally, it’s important to separate data and facts from assumptions and inferences. Often, leaders will make an assumption and then treat it as fact. Dig into the why and use data to protect yourself from inferences.
3. Look for opportunities and potential
Critical thinking isn’t about shutting down opportunities or ideas. It’s about seeing possibility and potential based on data and without assumption. For example, failed initiatives and major service interruptions are opportunities to revamp processes or rethink strategies to create something better.
4. Look for new perspectives
To be a critical thinker, you have to get out of the echo chamber. Engage in active listening when discussing problems and solutions. Engage with and actively listen to colleagues with opposing views in your own organization. While most people dread having to speak to someone who simply does not understand their role, it can be an excellent exercise to obtain new perspectives that can give more context to problems, examine your own biases and spark more ideas. Additionally, as a leader, you may benefit from learning from other industries or experts from other organizations. Be open to new perspectives or ideas from unlikely avenues.
5. Manage ambiguity
Finally to improve your critical thinking skills, get comfortable with ambiguity. We are all operating in rapidly changing environments. The data we have will change. Your own perspectives will shift, as well the perspective of others. You have to be comfortable identifying that you are making the right decision today, but the way those decisions get made can change in the future. Getting comfortable with this type of ambiguity and being able to practice critical thinking despite this rapid pace of change will help you to make better decisions for your organization in the long run.
Critical thinking doesn’t have to be a lost art. It can and should be encouraged at all levels of the organization – but it must start from the top. If you’re wondering whatever happened to critical thinking in your organization, perhaps it’s time to take a step back to examine your own critical thinking approach.
Is your organization suffering from a lack of critical thinking? Has your organization found ways to nurture and encourage critical thinking? Please share your thoughts!Share