The phrase “critical thinking skills” is often heard in business circles or seen listed in job requirements and MBA program descriptions. However, it’s not always clear what it actually means. True critical thinking involves an intervention in one’s own thought process in order to efficiently solve a problem. Unfortunately the administrative demands on today’s educators don’t leave much time to teach this process; as a result, there are an enormous amount of people in our workforce who lack this understanding.
What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?
Whenever any of us approach a problem, we bring biases to the table, often unintentionally. Prior experiences, cultural influences, assumptions about knowledge on the subject, or public opinion all play into our thought process, whether we’re aware of it or not. The challenge in critical thinking lies in first becoming aware of those biases, and then in stepping outside of them to clearly reason your way through a problem. Successful critical thinkers make better business decisions because the process allows them to gather more information, collaborate with others and evaluate a business decision with objectivity.
For example, a new solution to an old problem may be expressed during a workplace meeting. People who are naturally resistant to change may not exercise critical thinking skills, and instead respond that “We’ve always done it that way, why change it now?” Instead of shooting down a new idea without giving it any thought, the application of critical thinking could result in a more effective way of doing business. Perhaps the marketplace has changed, or new data has been made available that suggests a different direction. Successful companies are ones that take a process apart, examine its components carefully, and gather relevant information. This collaborative process encourages creative thinking and oftentimes results in very effective problem-solving.
There are several schools of thought that detail core steps in the critical thinking process. Each of them leads to intellectual analysis of the information at hand, identifies areas that require more research, and finally indicates a course of action that best solves the problem. Successful critical thinkers generally share the following characteristics:
- Open-minded. Acceptance of new ideas, even with their inherent biases, is crucial to this process. Not everyone approaches a problem with the same experience or knowledge, but that doesn’t mean their ideas are not valuable. The ability to accept that our idea may have been wrong or incompletely thought out is an extension of this open-mindedness.
- Think logically. Applying critical thinking requires that criteria must be defined for a problem’s components. Using precisely defined criteria to measure information allows for a more objective evaluation of data, removing biases and setting a standard to which all stakeholders must adhere. Replacing emotional barriers with logic can help you spot flaws in your processes that you may not have otherwise.
- Reasonable. The best decision-making involves arguments from multiple angles, including negative ones. Using carefully researched data to entertain all possible outcomes requires an unbiased approach to the information. Informed decisions are based on sound reasoning of all aspects of the problem.
- Collaborative. Loyalty to “our” idea is a human trait, but stepping outside of our own frame of reference requires conscious thought. By working with a group of individuals, each of whom has their own biases and knowledge levels, new ideas can be exposed. Good critical thinkers welcome the opportunity to make the right decision, versus inflexibly insisting on a particular solution.
How Is Critical Thinking Relevant to Business?
Effective management skills include the ability to think critically, and making the right decision under pressure is what defines successful businesspeople. Managers and staff must weigh all possible solutions; this can be time-consuming and require involving many people in the decision, but ultimately it leads to better choices. Some examples of critical thinking applied in the workplace follow.
Innovation creates successful business products, and being closed off to new ideas automatically stifles innovation. Opening up to a variety of solutions can help you create new options for your customers.
Let’s say a publisher of textbooks is informed by its sales team that educators want better options for creating exams. A manager resistant to new ideas, technology or expense may insist the company continue to provide the printed exams it always has. A critical-thinking manager instead may take the time to explore providing new, digital exam-building tools. In the first scenario, the company risks losing market share to competitors who provide its customers with better tools; in the latter, responding to direct customer requests with new offerings keeps the company competitive in a dynamic market.
Critical thinking makes it far more likely that you can create a range of products to suit your customer’s needs. Using the same example, a critical-thinking manager at the textbook publisher not only takes the time to investigate options, but is comfortable taking the problem to colleagues across other departments. The collaborative nature of this process generates ideas from individuals who might not have otherwise been involved in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the company may discover that there are cost-effective ways to offer customers choices among several digital and print exam-building tools. The critical thinking process can easily generate multiple solutions borne out of one question.
In another example, applying the critical thinking process to product development may allow for a more polished product. A company that markets to legal professionals, recognizing that their customers are required to maintain continuing education credits, decides to create an online continuing education delivery tool.
The team member who first suggested the idea is heavily invested in the product, having dreamed it up and spent long hours developing it. Launching such a product without exposing it to a critical thinking process would be unwise; namely because the original developer may be too emotionally involved to spot potential flaws in their proposal.
A lengthier process that allows colleagues to test the product can reveal glitches or inconsistencies that deserve to be addressed ahead of time. The tool may get to market later and require more funding to develop, but will ultimately stand as a better product, which in turn could solidify the company’s relationship with their customer base.
Marketing professionals especially benefit from critical thinking. A product’s packaging, message and advertising is most successful when targeted at a specific demographic. Because marketing also relies on an emotional reaction from customers, it is absolutely crucial that multiple voices and viewpoints are brought to the table. Applied critical thinking skills also drive research and preparation. Take focus groups; when properly incorporated into product development, these groups can provide invaluable feedback – feedback that could alter the course of development altogether. And while the collaborative process takes longer and costs more – focus groups, for instance, can eat up a lot of time – the findings will bring about a highly targeted, highly effective marketing campaign.
How many times have you responded too quickly to a message or made a hasty business decision, only to find that you needed to correct yourself later because you didn't think it all the way through? It happens to even the best workers, but having to backtrack and fix these kinds of avoidable mistakes costs you more than your pride — it's a waste of valuable time.
"Everyone is incredibly busy, and often we believe that we don't have the time to really think through an issue," said Jen Lawrence, co-author of "Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team" (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2014). "Using a structured thinking process will actually save employees time in the long run because they avoid making mistakes such as jumping to the wrong conclusion or making a decision that others reject down the road."
Critical thinking — which business consultant and author Steve Siebold defines as the ability to remove all emotion from an issue and observe the facts objectively to make a logical decision — is clearly advantageous for business. Lawrence noted that critical thinking helps employees gather all of the information required to analyze a situation, generate optimal solutions to a problem and get feedback from all the people involved in the situation. All of these steps, she said, contribute to better business solutions overall.
But why is it so difficult to encourage critical thinking in the workplace? Part of it is that people assume everyone in their workplace is busy and has no time, but it's also because critical thought isn't a priority in U.S. society as a whole. [The 10 Job Skills Employers Want]
"Schools are no longer routinely teaching basic thinking processes, such as rhetoric or the scientific method," Lawrence told Business News Daily. "Many companies find that they need to provide training in critical thinking."
"It's just not something we're really focused on," added Siebold, author of "177 Mental Toughness Secrets of The World Class" (London House Press, 2010). "We're emotional creatures by default. We're trained to think with emotions instead of using statistics, logic, reason, etc. Society fosters emotion-based thinking and decision making."
Critical thinkers are open-minded, confident, decisive, not reliant on others' approval and able to see past their emotions when making choices, Siebold said. To encourage your team to think critically, he advised asking employees how they make most of their decisions. Is it based on concrete proof, rather than a gut feeling? Can the decision be justified beyond the person's intuition, or be supported by anything that's not emotionally related? If a person can answer "yes" to these questions, he or she is engaging in a critical thought process.
Anyone is capable of learning and improving critical-thinking skills, but teaching your employees how to do this isn't always an easy task, especially if, as a leader, you're prone to quick, thoughtless decisions. The best way to encourage critical thinking is to lead by example, Lawrence said.
"If a CEO makes knee-jerk reactions that do not take all stakeholders into account, it will be hard to cultivate a culture of critical thinking," Lawrence said. "Good thinking practices should be modeled by the senior management team."