Many professionals hope to pursue careers they’re passionate about so they can find joy and meaning in their work. Caring deeply about your work is vital for engagement and productivity, but balancing emotions with critical thinking is essential in the workplace.
When employees engage in critical thinking, they use an independent, reflective thought process to evaluate issues and solve problems based on knowledge and objective evidence.
Critical thinking skills can guide your organization toward success, but to truly maximize the problem-solving benefits of critical thinking, it’s crucial to teach this skill to your entire team. We’ll explore critical thinking skills and how to teach them in the workplace to help your business improve its decision-making and problem-solving.
What is critical thinking?
Jen Lawrence, co-author of Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, defines critical thinking as “the ability to solve problems effectively by systematically gathering information about an issue, generating further ideas involving a variety of perspectives, evaluating the information using logic, and making sure everyone involved is on board.”
This is a complex definition for a challenging concept. Though critical thinking might seem as straightforward as stepping back and using a formal thinking process instead of reacting instinctively to conflicts or problems, it is actually a much more challenging task.
Critical thinking’s ultimate goal is ensuring you have the best answer to a problem with maximum buy-in from all parties involved – an outcome that will ultimately save your business time, money and stress.
Why is critical thinking essential in the workplace?
A World Economic Forum report revealed that critical thinking is one of the most in-demand career skills employers seek when trying to attract and retain the best employees – and employers believe critical thinking skills will become even more necessary in the coming years.
Critical thinking in the workplace guarantees objective and efficient problem-solving, ultimately reducing costly errors and ensuring that your organization’s resources are used wisely. Team members employing critical thinking can connect ideas, spot errors and inconsistencies, and make the best decisions most often.
Employees with critical thinking are also more likely to accomplish the following:
- Analyzing information
- Thinking outside the box
- Coming up with creative solutions to sudden problems
- Devising thought-through, systematic plans
- Requiring less supervision
What are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking is a soft skill that comprises multiple interpersonal and analytical abilities and attributes. Here are some essential critical thinking skills that can support workforce success.
- Observation: Employees with critical thinking can easily sense and identify an existing problem – and even predict potential issues – based on their experience and sharp perception. They’re willing to embrace multiple points of view and look at the big picture.
- Analytical thinking: Analytical thinkers collect data from multiple sources, reject bias, and ask thoughtful questions. When approaching a problem, they gather and double-check facts, assess independent research, and sift through information to determine what’s accurate and what can help resolve the problem.
- Open-mindedness: Employees who demonstrate critical thinking are open-minded – not afraid to consider opinions and information that differ from their beliefs and assumptions. They listen to colleagues; they can let go of personal biases and recognize that a problem’s solution can come from unexpected sources.
- Problem-solving attitude: Critical thinkers possess a positive attitude toward problem-solving and look for optimal solutions to issues they’ve identified and analyzed. They are usually proactive and willing to offer suggestions based on all the information they receive. [Related article: How to Develop a Positive Attitude in the Workplace]
- Communication: When managers make a decision, they must share it with the rest of the team and other stakeholders. Critical thinkers demonstrate excellent communication skills and can provide supporting arguments and evidence that substantiate the decision to ensure the entire team is on the same page.
What are the benefits of critical thinking in the workplace?
Many workplaces operate at a frantic tempo that reinforces hasty thinking and rushed business decisions, resulting in costly mistakes and blunders. When employees are trained in critical thinking, they learn to slow the pace and gather crucial information before making decisions.
Along with reducing costly errors, critical thinking in the workplace brings the following benefits:
- Critical thinking improves communication. When employees think more clearly and aren’t swayed by emotion, they communicate better. “If you can think more clearly and better articulate your positions, you can better engage in discussions and make a much more meaningful contribution in your job,” said David Welton, managing partner at Grove Critical Thinking.
- Critical thinking boosts emotional intelligence. It might seem counterintuitive to associate analytical rationality with emotional intelligence. However, team members who possess critical thinking skills are less prone to rash, emotion-driven decisions. Instead, they take time to analyze the situation and make the most informed decision while being mindful and respectful of the emotional and ethical implications.
- Critical thinking encourages creativity. Critical thinkers are open to new ideas and perspectives and accumulate a significant amount of information when facing decisions. Because of this, they’re more likely to come up with creative solutions. They are also curious and don’t shy away from asking open-ended questions.
- Critical thinking saves time and money. By encouraging critical thinking in the workplace, you minimize the need for supervision, catch potential problems early, promote independence and initiative, and free managers to focus on other duties. All this helps your company save valuable time and resources.
Critical thinking skills are essential for dealing with difficult customers because they help your team make informed decisions while managing stressful situations.
How do you teach critical thinking in the workplace?
Experts agree that critical thinking is a teachable skill. Both Lawrence and Welton recommend exploring critical thinking training programs and methods to improve your workplace’s critical thinking proficiency. Here’s a breakdown of how to teach critical thinking in the workplace:
- Identify problem areas. Executives and managers should assess workplace areas most lacking in critical thinking. If mistakes are consistently made, determine whether the issue is a lack of critical thinking or an inherent issue with a team or process. After identifying areas that lack critical thinking, research the type of training best suited to your organization.
- Start small. Employees newly embracing critical thinking might have trouble tackling large issues immediately. Instead, present them with smaller challenges. “Start practicing critical thinking as a skill with smaller problems as examples, and then work your way up to larger problems,” Lawrence said.
- Act preemptively. Teaching and implementing critical thinking training and methodology takes time and patience. Lawrence emphasized that critical thinking skills are best acquired during a time of calm. It might feel urgent to seek critical thinking during a crisis, but critical thinking is a challenging skill to learn amid panic and stress. Critical thinking training is best done preemptively so that when a crisis hits, employees will be prepared and critical thinking will come naturally.
- Allow sufficient time. From a managerial perspective, giving employees extra time on projects or problems might feel stressful in the middle of deadlines and executive pressures. But if you want those working for you to engage in critical thinking processes, it’s imperative to give them ample time. Allowing employees sufficient time to work through their critical thinking process can save the company time and money in the long run.
How do you identify successful critical thinking?
Successful critical thinking happens during a crisis, not after.
Lawrence provided an example involving restaurants and waitstaff: If a customer has a bad experience at a restaurant, a server using critical thinking skills will be more likely to figure out a solution to save the interaction, such as offering a free appetizer or discount. “This can save the hard-earned customer relationship you spent a lot of marketing dollars to create,” Lawrence said. This concept is applicable across many business and organizational structures.
You should also be aware of signs of a lack of critical thinking. Lawrence pointed out that companies that change strategy rapidly, moving from one thing to the next, are likely not engaging in critical thinking. This is also the case at companies that seem to have good ideas but have trouble executing them.
As with many issues in business, company leadership determines how the rest of the organization acts. If leaders have excellent ideas but don’t follow critical thinking processes, their team will not buy into those ideas, and the company will suffer. This is why critical thinking skills often accompany positive communication skills.
“Critical thinking doesn’t just help you arrive at the best answer, but at a solution most people embrace,” Lawrence said. Modeling critical thinking at the top will help the skill trickle down to the rest of the organization, no matter your company’s type or size.
To get your employees thinking critically, conduct employee surveys with well-designed questions to help them identify issues and solutions.
Critical thinking is the key to your business success
When critical thinking is actively implemented in an organization, mistakes are minimized, and operations run more seamlessly.
With training, time and patience, critical thinking can become a second-nature skill for employees at all levels of experience and seniority. The money, time and conflict you’ll save in the long run are worth the extra effort of implementing critical thinking in your workplace.
Rebecka Green contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.