The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers wouldn’t be complete without a look at the links between critical thinking and organizational performance. Like most soft skills, critical thinking is difficult to quantify and define. But you admire it when you see it, and you recognize the gap when it’s missing. Because it’s often easier to spot the gap, consider these indicators that you might need to brush up your critical thinking skills:
The Indicators You Might Need to Brush Up On Your Critical Thinking Skills
- Forming opinions and taking positions based on feelings vs. facts
- Justifying decisions with a single anecdote vs. a body of evidence
- Relying on ideology vs. individual thought and your own independent views
- Rejecting input due to a closed mind vs. soliciting input with an open mind
- Reciting the indoctrinated “party line” vs. pursuing new options inquisitively
- Proceeding aimlessly or with uncertainty vs. striving for clarity and knowing the purpose
- Making unilateral decisions vs. collaborating to include everyone impacted by decisions
- Protecting the status quo with rigidity vs. adapting to changes with agility
- Responding defensively when challenged vs. receiving critique graciously
- Having a narrow and short-term perspective vs. looking broadly, big picture, and long-term
These ten signs can alert you to a lack of critical thinking. Lazy thinking is the default mode. It’s prevalent because it kicks in automatically. The more experienced, successful and busy you are, the more susceptible you are to lazy thinking. That’s because you’ve developed habits and shortcuts in your thinking, and they’ve worked for you in the past.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re an HR executive who has seen the same situation over and over again throughout your career. You have a mental playbook for how to respond. You’re conditioned to do things a certain way. So, when yet another manager approaches you with a similar situation, you reflexively respond. You have your answers prepared before you hear the full situation. You give the playbook solution and expediently handle the matter.
This happens to the best of us. We leapfrog over important details that are not immediately apparent. We’re blinded to them by our assumptions and lazy thinking. It happens even more when we are also swayed by our emotions and unconscious biases (we all have ‘em!). Critical thinking requires time, effort and discomfort. Lazy thinking, by contrast, is very tempting.
Critical Thinking: What Is It Anyway?
Critical thinking is generally defined as skillful analysis, assessment, evaluation and synthesizing of information. It requires objectivity, logic, openness, and a willingness to challenge your own and others’ biases, beliefs, and conclusions.
Critical thinking goes beyond learning and remembering information. It’s about how you process and use the information you’ve been exposed to. Rather than automatically accepting what’s familiar and comfortable or rejecting what doesn’t fit your preconceived ideas, critical thinking kicks in when you ask questions before reaching a conclusion. That includes asking yourself introspective questions.
Critical thinking also goes beyond thinking. Routine thinking involves awareness, recollection, idea-generation, and reflection. When thinking critically, you’re also accessing objective judgment and analyzing your thoughts. This requires self-discipline and rationally considering more than what’s easy, familiar, comfortable, readily available, or emotionally gratifying.
Strong critical thinkers look for evidence to back information before they accept it. They appraise the quality of the evidence and seek diverse points of view to make sure they aren’t missing anything. They consider emotions but balance them with rational evaluation. They don’t favor a single source but consult multiple sources that provide opposing views.
They know that confirmation bias – selecting sources and information that support your own views -- is the enemy of critical thinking. They remain vigilant to avoid lazy thinking that makes them less effective in their problem solving, decision making, and leadership.
There are three qualities that are essential for building critical thinking skills. They are:
When you don’t accept things at face value, you probe by asking questions. You remain doubtful until you get enough information to confidently accept the information offered. Skepticism is a positive quality, so long as it doesn’t become cynicism. Healthy skepticism leads to new ideas, better understanding, and dialogue. Questions open the conversation when someone is skeptical and not overly eager to agree and move on. Cynicism shuts others down because, unlike skepticism, it comes with contempt, distrust, and disparagement. Cynics don’t ask questions, they pronounce judgments.
Skepticism is what enables you to recognize that there might be alternate ways (even better ways!) of solving a problem. It’s what launches critical thinking.
When you have a genuine desire to learn and know more, you’ll ask more questions and listen more carefully to the answers. You’ll explore possibilities you haven’t considered before. You’ll investigate options without dismissing them prematurely.
Curiosity is what enables you to take in more and different kinds of information for critical evaluation.
When you maintain a modest estimation of your own opinion, it’s easier to accept others’ input and ideas. This openness is a prerequisite for critical thinking. Without it, you’re inherently limited to what you already know. No matter how smart or experienced you are, you’re just one person. There’s a lot more out there that you don’t know!
Humility is what enables you to objectively weigh information and options without arrogantly favoring your own ideas and opinions.
With an appropriate mix of skepticism, curiosity and humility, you will naturally want to know more. You’ll be asking questions like these and objectively evaluating the answers.
- What is the evidence to back your claim? What is the source of that evidence?
- How do you know this is true?
- What role are feelings playing in this conclusion?
- What are the alternatives? How do others view this situation?
- What are we missing? Who else could we consult for an entirely different perspective?
- What are the pros and cons for each option?
- Who is affected and how? Who benefits? Are they presenting objective information?
- What has been done before and how is that relevant to this situation?
- What is the real, underlying problem that we’re trying to resolve?
- What are the ideal outcomes? How many of those ideals will this response provide?
The purpose of critical thinking is to draw sound conclusions, make quality decisions, and solve problems effectively. It can also help you feel more confident about the choices you make while also building credibility as others become more confident in you, too. There’s also a myriad of benefits for an organization when managers and team members are strong critical thinkers.
Critical Thinking and Organizational Performance – Links and Benefits
Group think and unproductive conflict are equally damaging to a team and organization. Critical thinking helps managers avoid both.
Group think is a trap that teams fall into when everyone wants to preserve harmony or avoid the conflict that comes from offering opposing views. When there is a dominant figure in the group, other voices may be suppressed as people withhold input because they believe it won’t be valued. Group think discourages idea generation and innovation.
Unproductive conflict is a trap, too, that teams succumb to when there are competing interests (or the perception of them). Infighting, undermining, sabotaging, personalizing, and refusing to collaborate all stem from issues that could be addressed with a rational approach. Unproductive conflict saps morale and impairs overall effectiveness.
Healthy conflict is another matter. When team members respectfully engage in open discussion and two-way dialogue, they feel more committed to the eventual outcomes. They feel dignified because their opinions were heard and valued. They are more willing to offer ideas and challenge existing processes with an toward incremental improvement.
A manger’s critical thinking unleashes a team’s unrestrained contributions.
Critical thinking generates new ideas and explores them when they’re offered. Critical thinkers don’t reflexively or defensively respond with conversation-enders like “we always do it this way” or “we’ve never done it that way.” When more new ideas bubble up, innovation naturally occurs. In an era of disruption and rapid change, long-term organizational performance depends on innovation.
Critical thinking fosters teamwork, too, and strengthens inclusion. Employee engagement increases when people feel a sense of belonging and emotional commitment. By bringing in all voices and remaining open to truly consider others’ input, managers create cultures where everyone listens more, respects others more, asks more questions, and understands others’ needs better. The research that demonstrates how engagement affects every aspect of organizational performance is compelling.
When a manager exhibits good critical thinking, it also sets a standard for others. Employees who see quality decision making and effective problem solving are more likely, themselves, to develop and use these skills. That means you’ll be able to trust others with decision authority. It means team members will solve their own problems instead of bringing them to you. No more need for managers to constantly “put out fires.”
The obvious benefits of improved decision making and problem solving also boost organizational performance. No more endless meetings to admire the problem but never solve it. No more backtracking on decisions once unintended consequences emerge or because team members revolt. No more clash over how conclusions were reached. No more people feeling disenfranchised by decisions that affect them but they had no part in making.
Obviously, bad decisions negatively impact business results. That’s why one AMA/CMCS study found that critical thinking was the single most important skills of senior leaders. The same study also found that most executives believe there will be even more need for critical thinking skills in the workplace in the future.
Numerous studies validate that organizations with strong critical thinkers outperform those with a deficit in these skills. Unfortunately, the same research shows that there are critical gaps in critical thinking abilities in the leadership ranks and in mid-management (the future senior leaders).
The good news is that critical thinking skills can be learned, practiced and mastered.
How You Can Build Your Mental Might and Eradicate Lazy Thinking Habits
If you’d like to set yourself apart from others who lack critical thinking skills, there are three things you can do.
First, you can measure your critical thinking skills. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is an excellent assessment that measures your ability to recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments, draw conclusions, and view a situation critically, objectively, and logically. It’s available through organizations. For a free test you can access individually, check out this one that assesses you abilities in argumentation, interpretation, and drawing conclusions.
Second, you can take a course that will help you identify your gaps in critical thinking and work on those. The No More Lazy Thinking course from PFPS focuses on helping managers build their mental might. Organizations interested in learning more about this 2-day workshop can contact PFPS directly.
Finally, for an introduction to the skills you can build and the mindsets you may need to address, subscribe to the PFPS YouTube Channel and view the 40-part video series in this playlist. This is a free, low-risk way to begin thinking differently and to build your mental might.
In addition to any of the learning strategies you choose, remember that critical thinking is a choice and a discipline. You’ll have to step outside your comfort zone and challenge your own assumptions, biases and perceptions. Doing this alone will make you a stronger critical thinker.