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.”
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?