Having the ability to think critically about an issue is one of the most powerful demonstrations of your leadership capacity. Critical thinking or, the ability to analyze and evaluate information to make a decision, isn’t the easiest skill to develop. It isn’t an automatic byproduct of your knowledge or learning. On the contrary, it is something that requires self-discipline and practice. People often put it like this: critical thinking is turning knowledge into wisdom. It is unlikely that you could hear about a new problem and immediately have a clear vision for how to solve it. Using your previous experience and personal intuition should only represent a part of your decision-making process. In fact, the best leaders deeply absorb new information before integrating it with what they already know. Forbes devised seven critical thinking tactics that high-performing leaders use to make informed decisions. Much of their advice centered on listening, asking questions, and reflecting. The origins of critical thinking The Foundation for Critical Thinking traces the skill all the way back to Greek philosopher Socrates. Remember, Socrates challenged passionate rhetoric by asking a series of targeted questions and urging those in authority to provide evidence for their claims. He would then, through more questioning, analyze the evidence to determine its logic. Essentially, the Socratic Method, is asking and answering questions to draw out any inconsistencies or irrational thought. The method is, at its core, critical thinking. Critical thinking has become a point of emphasis in education in recent years. In the previous century, students might have taken Latin because it was assumed that being able to unpack difficult vocabulary would help them perform better on exams. But over time, academic researchers have realized that being able to read a question, understand what it is asking, planning steps to answer it, and communicating the answer well is of greater value to students. In other words, a very smart student who has studied extensively for a test might still make errors if they aren’t able to think through each problem on the test and understand what is being asked of them. The knowledge itself isn’t enough. As early as the late 1980s, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking started considering the value of elevating knowledge into something more profound, a deeper understanding of concepts and ability to make sound judgement based on that understanding. They said critical thinkers share two qualities: 1. A set of information and processing skills, 2. A habit of using those skills to guide behavior. Processing and resulting behavior won’t be the same with each problem. As Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia who has written extensively on the subject recently pointed out, “Critical Thinking is needed when you’re playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match, but there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.” Improving self-awareness One of the most dangerous trappings of hasty decision making is letting your own assumptions and biases guide you. To be an effective critical thinker, you need to understand the way you handle things and how your own belief system is structured to include your preferences, ethics, and solutions you lean into because you’re good at the skills required to pursue them. Understand your priorities and consider jotting them down to keep focus but be willing to adjust them if necessary. Seek opportunities for feedback, whether it’s from your supervisor, mentoring partner, or colleagues. Ask them how you’re doing on a specific project or whether you’re tackling a new skill appropriately. Be positive and open to critical feedback which is, honestly, sometimes most helpful. Don’t lose sight of your strengths because it’s easier to hear about your weaknesses when you feel rooted in what you know you’re consistently doing well. Developing a keen self-awareness is helpful when synthesizing new information on a problem and developing a fair and balanced solution. Be a good active listener A strong critical thinker cannot make a decision without having proper background knowledge. Once you’ve heard everything, it’s okay to begin synthesizing that information by adding in your experience and the things you already know. Listen well and don’t interrupt when your co-workers are talking. Take stock in the challenges they are facing on their end and do not jump to conclusions or drift off thinking about what you’re going to say next. Don’t forget the non-verbal listening cues: put your phone away, mute notification, make eye contact, nod. Only ask questions when they are done speaking. Avoid “why” questions because when you’re gathering information, it’s too soon to jump to they “whys.” Stick with the “whats” and “hows.” Your questions should only serve to check your understanding. You might ask them to clarify a specific point or to build upon something they already said. Also paraphrase what they’ve said to boil down their meaning and confirm you have a strong understanding of the situation. Be the one to point out different perspectives Once you have a firm handle on the information, you can start pulling in different perspectives. Getting outside of your bubble will help you develop richer insights. You might leverage your existing professional networks or mentoring experience to get to know people in different groups. If there’s time, it helps to find several sources that present a different view. Are there alternative systems of thought on this? If so, think of examples and weigh their value. Look for assumptions and biases that can result from groupthink and point them out explicitly. Here are some tips for building perspective: Seek counsel from those with diverse backgrounds. Form relationships with people who challenge you. Ask for opinions in a way that lets others know it’s okay to disagree with you. Try to learn something from each person you meet in your networking encounters. When making a plan, consider the outcomes To round out your critical thought, brainstorm to think of the potential outcomes of any decision you make. Think through what can happen in several different circumstances and be able to articulate that to your colleagues. Consider what might change and how you will pivot your plan if necessary. You need to have foresight and be able to make predictions. It is most important that you communicate your predictions clearly and with confidence. But generally, when it comes to predicting outcomes, here are some units of measure you should consider: What is the main goal, after doing these things, what will the distance be between the outcome and that original goal? Who will be affected? At what point in the process will they feel the affects of this decision? How will you track progress? What are some performance measures? (ex: budget money saved, customer satisfaction.) What will be your plan for reviewing the outcomes and articulating them to the rest of the group? Ask a mentor: Mentors have often developed their own critical thinking skills over time. Ask for their advice on establishing your own: - What are the metrics you use to predict outcomes on a project? - How do you check your own biases and assumptions? - What do you do to encourage critical thinking in problem solving for your team? - What are some of the best ways someone can demonstrate self-awareness? - When you need wider perspective on an issue, how do you find it?
When it comes to finding fulfillment in our work, we might need to actively seek it. It isn’t always practical to turn our most naturally revered passions into a source of income. That’s not to disparage the magical mix of dreams, grit, and perseverance that pushes us to reach for the stars and conquer our goals. It’s just that, often, where we are is exactly where we need to be. When a promotion or heading in a new direction isn’t the right course at the moment, how can we find inspiration in the very thing we’re already doing? When we turn on the office lights and switch on our computers, how do we access passion instead of just grind? Notice what tunes you into your work Take an inventory of your current strengths and interests. When is your attention most rapt or when does time fly fastest for you? Maybe you enjoy planning meeting agendas and project timelines or collaborating with other teammates to fix problems and strategize workarounds. Isolate that thing because it’s likely what gives you the deepest sense of purpose. Think about how that thing enhances to your colleagues’ work, division’s responsibilities, and organization’s mission. Consider why that component of your work is valuable to others and brings you contentment. Does it lean into your natural abilities or contribute to the organizational goals of which you are the proudest? Does it relate to your original career vision? Look for opportunities to elevate the things you do well Let your supervisor (or other influencers) know that you feel an affinity for this specific part of your job. Express gratitude and let them know of your interest for more opportunities get involved in this capacity. Think of it like a position on a baseball team. If you love centerfield, but the coach is always rotating positions, let them know you feel a fire for center. Enthusiasm is crucial as talent. Read trade publications and pass them on to your manager. Ask to sit in on related meetings or even lend a hand on another project so that colleagues associate you with competence and expertise in this space. Find a mentor There are likely other parts of your job that don’t come as easily to you as that thing. Keep working to your fullest potential in areas where you feel most confident and look for help where you don’t. Mentors are everywhere. Once, a friend told me that a full email inbox was her pet peeve. “I just can’t stand when I have to scroll to see all my messages,” she said. For me, it was the opposite. I was having an awful time keeping up with email and knew that my clogged inbox was distracting me from my other work. “Are you kidding?!” I gasped. “I’d love to have a tidy inbox! Can you tell me how you do it?” She showed me a system of responding to and archiving messages that I still use today. Keep a healthy perspective An important ingredient to success is balancing the things we have to do with the things we like doing best. There will always be expectations, demands, and even dull routines that no one can get out from underneath. Don’t put yourself down or let hyper awareness of your weaknesses keep you from amplifying your strengths, but it’s okay to let people know when you’re in uncomfortable terrain if you do it graciously: “You always catch all the details! I would have missed that on my own. I’m so glad we’re working on this together.” But also make sure to let others know when you’re in your sweet spot: “I can’t wait to start working on this. This is my favorite stage of a project.”
It might seem like an unusual topic but the way you organize your workspace may say more about your personality than you think. Look around at yours right now. Is it perfectly neat or does it have a more “lived-in” look? Do you display personal mementos? Or prefer plain walls? Do you hang professional certificates and awards? Or have you designated a drawer for items of organizational recognition? Whether you share cubicle space, work remotely from a corner of your home or are tucked inside a private office with a door, your work space paints a picture of your personality and working style. To make sure your desk is saying what you want it to say about you, we will share some ideas for organizing and personalizing your space: Communicate Power and Efficiency with a Clean Workspace If you are interested in communicating power and having command of your workload, keep your space open and streamlined. Declutter your desk by getting rid of things you don’t need. Go paperless if possible; scan important documents and file them electronically on your desktop. Pick one spot for digital devices, cords, and chargers. Keep in mind some clutter is virtual, like the clutter of icons on your desktop. Having too many icons may make it difficult to find things quickly and can even slow down your computer. De-clutter your desktop frequently. Encourage Openness by Sharing Your Friendly and Unique Flair There are a couple of ways to add some personality to your workspace and express to your colleagues that you are an outgoing and interesting person with a happy life inside and outside of work. For example: 1. Pick the perfect wall calendar: A wall calendar makes it easy to reference dates and double-check commitments without always having to pick up your smart phone. Pick something that reflects your interests or aesthetics. Run a search on Etsy, check out a local stationary store, visit your favorite museum’s gift shop, or even make your own on Snapfish (or other photo website) with pictures from your phone or social media accounts. 2. Display 3-5 photos: Of course, you don’t want to clutter your desk with pictures from college or a wild summer barbeque, but just a few photos of a beloved pet, family members, or a scene from a recent vacation are great conversation-starters and can make you feel happy throughout the day. 3. Curate a small collection of your favorite things: If you love poetry books or collect Star Wars memorabilia, displaying just a few of those items in your office communicates that you have rich interests and a unique personality. Establish Stability and Harmony With their dreary corners and humming equipment, offices can feel at once hectic and stale. To brighten things up and balance the environment, add simple flourishes from the Chinese study of dynamic energy flow by adding a bit of Feng Shui: 1. Air-purifying plants: Low-maintenance is a must. Try cacti, spider plants, jade, or peace lilies, which do not require full-sun or daily watering. 2. Ion-neutralizing Himalayan salt rock: Believed to counteract positive ions produced by your computer and smart phone, many are outfitted with small lights that emit a peaceful glow. 3. Happy family photos: Communicate that you are a family-oriented person who treasures and draws support from your loved ones. Curate them into nice frames in a single spot. 4. Small mirror behind your desk: Ideally, your desk should face the door so that you see everyone who passes or enters. If that furniture layout is not possible, place a small mirror next to your computer so that you can see behind you, eliminating any feelings of uneasiness. 5. Desk lamp: natural light is the best alternative to Narsh fluorescent lighting in an office, but a small task lamp also produces a calming light. Demonstrate that You Are Organized and On Top of Details There is more to being “on top” of your projects than simply having completed them. Being able to communicate to your supervisor where your projects are in the process and reporting critical details will make you feel more confident about your workload and sound competent to your team leaders. For this reason, having an inbox and an outbox is not enough to encapsulate the middle of projects. Engineer a three-step routine at your desk that will make it easy for you to touch each project on your plate daily and report back on them concisely: 1. File: Create a master list for each project, either as a hanging file or electronic list or both. In it, take the time to break your project into a series of smaller tasks. It will make your work seem less overwhelming but also give you the freedom to take on easier tasks on already busy days. 2. Board: You can hang a simple wipe-off board or download an online task board like Trello, to color-code tasks according to priority level and move them through the process from “start” to “submitted.” 3. Tray: Take a day, weekly or bi-weekly to review progress against the project plan. Is the deadline still manageable? Will you have enough resources? Flag any issues and place them in a tray on your desk so that you remember to raise them with your supervisor or team leader. Taking the time to situate your desk will demonstrate competence in your job but can also make you feel more content and satisfied while you’re sitting there! Ask a Mentor!Your mentor has seen a lot of desks in their professional lifetime. Talk to them about what they like to see and what irks them. Here are some possible questions you might ask: Who has the neatest office space you can think of? What stands out most about it? What are the challenges you face when trying to feel at home and satisfied with your own office space? Do you have any personal items hanging in your office? Organizational certificates? What is an absolute must for you to feel productive when sitting at your desk? What is your pet peeve when you look into someone else’s office?