All great business leaders have this skill.
It is the hope of professionals to pursue careers they are passionate about. While finding joy and meaning from one's work is helpful for productivity, it is important to make sure intense emotions and impulses do not cloud critical thinking in the workplace. Professionals should use critical thinking in all aspects of workplace operations to avoid costly mistakes. From recruiting to marketing and sales, all organizational departments should emphasize practicing critical thinking in workplace decisions.
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 in on board."
This is a complex definition for a complex concept. Though it might seem as simple as stepping back and using a formal thinking process instead of reacting instinctively to conflicts or problems, this is easier said than done. Critical thinking skills can and should be taught in the workplace so they become second nature.
Critical thinking is important because it ensures you have the best answer to a problem, with maximum buy-in from all parties involved – an outcome which will ultimately save your business time, money and stress. Here's how to understand, adopt and implement critical thinking in your workplace.
Teaching critical thinking in the workplace
David Welton, managing partner at Grove Critical Thinking, says critical thinking is "a teachable skill." He notes that critical thinking is often miscategorized as a soft skill, but soft skills are not teachable. If employers and employees alike don't think critical thinking is teachable, it is easy for it to be left by the wayside.
Both Lawrence and Welton recommend exploring critical thinking trainings and methods to improve your workplace's overall critical thinking proficiency. Those in executive and managerial positions can begin with an assessment of which areas of the workplace seem to be most lacking in critical thinking.
If mistakes are consistently being made, it is helpful to first explore whether the issue is a lack of critical thinking, not an inherent issue with an employee or group of employees. Then, you can research what trainings, coaches or curricula might fit your organization best.
"Start practicing critical thinking as a skill with smaller problems as examples, and then work your way up to larger problems," Lawrence said.
Critical thinking is all about solving problems through rational processes and evidence-based knowledge. Like the scientific method, critical thinking contains a lot of steps, as Lawrence noted in her definition, but these steps will save a lot of time in the long run if mistakes can be prevented.
Approaching problems with an independent, reflective thought process is one kind of critical thinking. Critical thinking forms arguments from evidence, while naming problems and assumptions that can get in the way of evaluating an issue for what it is. It's about solving problems in a process-centered way that capitalizes on knowledge and objective evidence – and in the business world, these skills save time and money from top to bottom.
Not only will it save your business costly resources, but critical thinking will also enhance other workplace skills, such as communication, creativity, analytical competency, emotional intelligence and general problem-solving.
Saving time and money with critical thinking
A 24-hour news cycle and barrage of unchecked facts overloads our brains in and out of the workplace. Lawrence said this contributes to a frantic workplace tempo that reinforces hasty thinking and business decisions. This is when costly mistakes and blunders are made.
Welton added that critical thinking makes individuals not only better thinkers, but better communicators. "If you can think more clearly and better articulate your positions, you can better engage discussions and make a much more meaningful contribution in your job."
It might seem counterintuitive to associate analytical rationality with emotional, meaningful contribution, but when you can feel confident and thorough in your decision-making process, the end result will feel more fulfilling and yield emotional intelligence.
Just like critical thinking processes themselves, teaching and implementing critical thinking training and methodology takes time and patience. Lawrence emphasized that critical thinking skills are best acquired in a time of calm. It might feel urgent to seek out critical thinking during a crisis, but it is a hard skill to learn in a panic. Critical thinking training is best done preemptively – that way, when a crisis does hit, employees will be prepared and critical thinking will come naturally.
From an executive or managerial perspective, giving employees extra time on projects or solving problems might feel like a stressor if there are deadlines or pressures from higher up. But if you want those working for you to engage in critical thinking processes, it's imperative to give them the time to do so.
Again, some of the stress can be avoided if critical thinking is taught preemptively, not as a last resort. Giving employees this extra time will actually save the company time and money in the long run.
Identifying successful critical thinking
Teaching employees critical thinking in the workplace allows them to employ the skill as a crisis happens, not after the fact.
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."
This concept is applicable across many business and organizational structures. While the restaurant example conveys critical thinking skills, you should also be aware of the signs of a lack of those skills. Companies that change strategy rapidly, moving from one thing to the next, are likely not engaging in critical thinking, said Lawrence. This is also the case in companies that seem to have good ideas but have trouble executing them.
As with many issues in business, what's happening at the top is a good signifier of how present critical thinking is in the rest of the organization. If a company has a smart leader with great ideas but no processes being followed, there will be no buy-in, 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," said Lawrence. Modeling critical thinking at the top will help the skill trickle down to the rest of the organization, no matter what kind or size of company you have.
When mistakes are avoided and business is seamless at all levels, not just at the executive level, that means critical thinking is actively implemented in an organization. Between trainings, 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 will save in the long run is well worth the extra time and patience of implementing critical thinking in your workplace.