Critical thinking is a crucial skill for all leaders because it is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. Often, when the subject is complex, evaluating evidence in an unbiased way is required. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. So, why is critical thinking important? When leaders rely on assumptions, they are really putting their fate in the hands of luck. Instead, when using critical thinking when confronted with a problem, decisions are logical and well thought out. Facts and evidence are that basis for decisions, rather than anecdote, supposition, and superstition.
People who think critically are:
- Curious and open to new ideas.
- Sceptical, they question what they are told.
- Humble, and prepared to admit wrong when confronted with evidence to the contrary.
Examples of critical thinking
Every day most people make thousands of decisions. While most of these do not require much critical thinking, some will.
For example, imagine if two patients front a doctor with the same symptoms but vastly different medical histories. Just repeating two diagnosis and treatments without careful analysis could put a patient’s life at risk. Serious repercussions can result if prescribed medications conflict with a pre-existing condition. Such decisions can have life and death consequences.
Of course, critical thinking goes beyond the medical profession. In leadership, managers contend with problems and opinions daily. While not all have life or death consequences, they can mean the difference between success or failure. Efficiency or inefficiency. The ability to test opinions and probe issues well help teams identify and resolve problems more effectively. This leads to better outcomes, improving productivity, staff morale, and customer service.
Critical thinking vs mindless thinking
Depending on whether you think critically or otherwise often makes the difference success and failure. The human brain, although an extraordinary often tries to simplify problems by reflex. Prejudices, assumptions, rumour, fake information, and all sorts of other distortions can influence us. Past experiences can be a great source of information, but can also lead us to incorrect assumptions without some analysis being done. It is easy to feel rushed into decisions when under pressure. That is where mindless thinking, or overly relying on assumptions, can lead us down a rabbit hole. Critical thinking aims to be an antidote for this.
- Is domain general. It applies to almost any situation.
- Leads to better decision making.
- Is vital for careers advancement.
- Leads to greater happiness through solving problems more effectively.
- Improves creativity by thinking outside the box.
- Helps interpersonal relationships by being balanced, fair, and curious.
- Leads to being a better and more informed individual.
Critical thinking and work
There is evidence that past education policies have worked against the this skill, so necessary in professional work environments.
Critical thinking skills are domain-general because no matter what profession you are in, there are always problems. When you think critically, you analyse the facts of a problem. This means gathering relevant information, asking sensible questions, and going through possible solutions. The process teaches you to test assumptions.
If someone thinks critically then they are objective. Solutions to problems are found without preconceived biases, emotions, or unchecked opinions. Instead, critical thinking only analyses problems on the basis of context and facts. These skills are desperately needed at every career level. Good critical thinkers can work independently and collaboratively in finding solutions to problems.
Critical thinking and management
Individuals in leadership roles who apply critical thinking are far more useful to their enterprise. A leader who thinks critically constantly reflects and tries to understand his or her organisation and how its parts synchronise.
A critical thinker sees the big picture. They distinguish between short-term gains and long-term success and their leadership reflects this. They come across as curious, fair, and non-judgemental.
The critical thinking process
The following points highlight useful critical thinking steps, when applied to a problem:
- Define the problem accurately. This requires observation.
- Determine how the problem arose and options for resolving. This requires an open mind, reflective thinking, and good communication.
- Capture relevant facts and data pertaining to the issue. An open mind and an unbiased approach to this gathering is vital.
- Analyze the information carefully and in an unbiased way, looking for patterns.
- Work through proposed solutions; again, with an open, inquiring mind.
- Test solutions through the process of elimination and seeking advice from others.
- Improve solutions where possible. Then retest them for any assumptions.
- Lastly, once the solution is found, reflection helps with learning. Consider if there are any lessons to prevent recurrence or improve decision making next time around.
Finally, the critical thinking process helps you hone the following skills:
- Keeping an open mind and identifying hidden bias.
- Having honest observations.
- Maintaining a questioning attitude.
- Increasing your interest in facts and analysis.
- Improved problem-solving.
- The drawing of deductions and inferences.
What about gut instinct?
The topic of gut instinct is very important and is covered in more detail here. Never ignore your gut instinct, but use critical thinking to test what it is telling you. Gut feel is a valuable tool in identifying potential misinformation, misdirection, or bad decisions!
10 steps to improve critical thinking
Lastly, to improve your critical thinking skills:
- Practice your questioning techniques and use them frequently. For example, when asking someone a question and they answer, ask why they think that? Asking why a key place is to start in really understanding a situation.
- Know yourself and your biases. For more information, see our article on unconscious bias.
- Learn to gather data. Where might you glean specific information relating to particular problems or scenarios?
- Identify how to deduce information and possible root causes. Are there any trends? Patterns?
- Learn the skill of analysing consequences. For example, Why was it done that way in the first place? If we change a step what will or won’t happen? Is it important?
- Keep asking questions if something does not “feel right”. Test assumptions.
- Be empathetic. Put yourself in the shoes of others.
- Solve some simple problems first.
- Reflect on past decisions and outcomes and treat them as learning and improvement opportunities.
- Do not be too hard on yourself. After-all, mistakes are the best teachers and good critical thinking skills take time and practice.