Applying Critical Thinking
At its most simple level, critical thinking involves each and every one of us in making a deeper evaluation or judgment about what we hear, see or general experience and to be more willing to challenge what is so often stated to be true. This is why we should all engage much more in critical thinking activity and get into the habit of using the critical thinking approach as much as possible. But although this is all very well in theory, what about doing it in practice, and in particular, applying critical thinking to workplace issues where it can really matter to efficiency and effectiveness? The real question therefore is whether critical thinking is useful to organizational managers in a practical sense?
It is suggested that there are a number of immediate and practical benefits to managers using critical thinking as follows:
- To increase the quality of thinking. All managers need to resist the urge to pass judgment based only upon initial reactions or gut feelings. In other words, the more planful and considered our approach, the better decisions we will ultimately make.
- To better challenge assumptions. All managers are expected to challenge shaky assumptions (and not to make conditioned responses). In other words, we should always be thinking about other alternative pathways or options.
- To improve problem-solving. We can all recognize that many problems are vague and require effort to identify. Critical thinking can therefore help to clarify and focus the approach that we can best take.
- To be more attentive listeners. Managers need to try and put ourselves within in the perspective of business partners/clients and to reason empathetically (and be as open and fair-minded as possible). In other words, the more effectively we put ourselves into the “shoes” of others, the better our decisions are likely to be.
- To improve decision-making. All managers need to know when to gather more evidence or to add facts, figures and evidence to improve decision-making quality.
- To be more effective evaluators of people and their ideas. Managers need to distinguish between the person and the idea or issue. Critical thinking is the ideal vehicle by which to do this.
So it seems that there are several very good reasons for critical thinking to move beyond theory and to become a competency that is taught in every workplace so that people can become critical thinkers.
So, what is a critical thinker?
The conclusion of a group of experts in the late 1990’s developed the following list of qualities of a critical thinker.
They suggested that they need to be:
- Truth-seeking: Critical thinkers seek truth, even if truth is inconsistent with closely-held beliefs.
- Open-minded: Critical thinkers value honest intellectual disagreement. There is strength in competition between a diversity of ideas.
- Analytical: Critical thinkers demand evidence for positions, and consider the consequences of adopting any particular position for all affected parties.
- Systematic: Organization and focus are necessary requirements for the process of developing, testing, adopting, and advocating new ideas.
- Self-confident: As critical thinking skills grow, people tend to develop confidence in their ability to judge the merits of and choose between ideas.
- Inquisitive: Critical thinkers are curious and want to know. Ignorance is neither bliss nor desirable.
- Mature: Critical thinking leads to wisdom born of personal experience and the experience of others.
Although this appears to be a useful list of characteristics it is still possible to engage in shallow, misdirected and unsympathetic thinking if we are not careful about the mental appraisal traps that can occur. In this regard, the 3 “B’s” of Beliefs, Bias and Blind-spots are these ones to guard against the most. Let’s therefore look briefly at each of these individually.
We all hold beliefs of all kinds, some valid and some not. The ones we are concerned about however are those beliefs that are just held and not challenged. These kind of beliefs may be held for a long time because they have not been subjected to deeper thought or may be held for a lifetime even when facts undermine the belief (because a person becomes “invested” in their own beliefs).
Bias, or what is often called prejudice or discrimination in other quarters, is the tendency of individuals to consider what they see and hear from their own limited or narrow perspective and not realize that their view is distorted. We therefore need to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially when they are very different from us, much more often in order to reach better quality conclusions.
Blind spots arise when an individual has little or no knowledge and perhaps tries to argue a position by guessing or hypothesizing (and does so inaccurately or incorrectly). Of course, we cannot specifically know our blind-spots but we can become more aware that we may be missing something important.
In actual fact, we all inevitably have some degree of unfounded belief, bias and blind-spots because human beings tend to mainly communicate by two means-finding a pattern or threading a story of some kind. In all three of these situations therefore we need to develop our awareness that there may be a different pattern that better explains what is happening or a better “story” than the one we think is playing out.
In addition to the need to become more self-aware and to develop the characteristics of a critical thinker described above, we should also constantly ask ourselves and others challenging questions about what is happening around us in our team, the department or the wider organization for which we are a part. If we can do this even a small amount of the time, the quality of thinking can increase substantially and the results will be seen extremely quickly.