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Critical Thinking: Is it a lost art?

: : ActionCOACH Media, Business Coaching : ( words)

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, critical thinking ranks among the top job skills employers are looking for in today’s job market. With that being said you would think Universities and Colleges would be bursting with classes to teach critical thinking techniques to students and employers would be creating work environments that immerse their employees in the discipline of thinking critically every day.

Sadly, both of these assumptions are wrong. Not only are applicants lacking critical thinking abilities as they enter the workforce, which a problem that is too big for this blog but, employers often don’t know how to access or enhance their own critical thinking environment for their employees. Often, it’s because defining critical thinking can be hard to define and managers themselves have varying comfort levels with allowing their teams to exercise true critical thinking to solve problems.

Simply put, critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement” (Dictionary.com, 2019). Or more plainly, arriving at the best solution after reviewing all of the pertinent facts. Whether in the mail room or at the highest levels of any organization problems arise daily. Some are assessed and corrected quickly but others require a bit more scrutiny and in there lies the root of all evil. Critical thinking requires that employees think about and analyze the situation, come up with a course of action or plan and then execute the plan to solve the problem. Many managers’ hands start to sweat when they think about letting their team members come up with solutions themselves and can stifle critical thinking by simply barking orders.

It is true that managers often don’t have time to let everyone on the team go through the process of critically assessing all the variables, gather input from every stakeholder and craft a measurable plan to address the issue. There are times when a manager has to assign tasks to address a situation that is time sensitive. But consider that growth for the organization really happens when the manager and the team can critically address issues and develop solutions that are not only well thought out and are as inclusive as possible. Developing an environment rich with critical thinking, start at the beginning.

To assess critical thinking amongst your team first check their level of execution. How well do they complete their tasks? Are they on time with assignments and are their assignments completed in their entirety? If your team members are having problems making deadlines or have partially incomplete assignments, then you have to consider providing more finite projects. Be more specific in your requests, create checklists and or processes they have to follow to ensure all steps are addressed and the outcome is what you expect. Always inspect, what you expect to make sure your team is progressing.

Once you are comfortable with the execution level you can move to the process stage. Now you begin to assign projects with less direction and more ambiguity. In these assignments you are looking to see if your team can identity what is truly important. Are they able to identify the most important factors or variables? Are they seeking out important insight from stakeholders? Are they able to articulate those insights to you in a way that illustrates they fully grasp the Have-To-Dos vs. the Nice-To-Dos. This isn’t going to happen quickly for some members of your team and you may have to use the buddy system to ensure that critical elements of the project or task aren’t missed. Allowing your team to discover options, alternatives and have them consider potential outcomes can go miles toward developing their critical thinking skills.

As your team advances, you can begin to get more adventurous and actually allow your team to formulate and provide recommendations to address issues your organization is facing. It’s crazy but true, you don’t have to come up with all the answers and plans yourself. If you can coach your team effectively over time to ask the right questions, identify the important elements or variables and get feedback or input from relevant stakeholders they can and often will provide you with recommendations for process improvement or problem solutions that will surprise you.

Empowering a team or specific team member to critically approach their day-to-day job also adds enrichment and satisfaction to their job. Allow your team to actually manage the area they are responsible for and they will naturally begin to assess challenges with a more critical eye. Ask them more open-ended questions and don’t be fast on the trigger to give answers to their questions. Coach them to probe more, consider alternative outcomes and challenge their acceptance of norms to begin introducing elements of critical thinking you want to foster.

Ultimately, you have to demonstrate and model the behavior your want to see in your team. If you are asking enough questions and are stuck in a TASK mode all day, then you aren’t really thinking about solutions or ways to improve the organizations current situation.  If you are fixated on checking the boxes off your list, then you aren’t exercising your critical thinking muscles either. Challenge yourself to develop a more critical thinking approach.

There is a debate amongst some that critical thinking is a “born with it” or “without” trait. While some believe that nature has more to do with the ability to think critically than nurture ever will, it is my contention that you have to be a willing and engaged subject in either case. You may have a very capable employee that has the abilities naturally and shows little no or initiative to apply them. Or you may have someone you have to coach and train who is eager to learn and actively applies what you teach them. For my money the second employee is more valuable. The willingness to learn from mistakes, be open to coaching and apply new skills is going to be more valuable in the long run.

If you believe that you can coach your employees to make the right decisions and choices 70% of the time, then you should risk it. It is likely to match or exceed your own batting average if you try to do everything on your own. Think about it critically before you just say no.

Check out this article from Harvard Business Review to learn more about assessing your team’s critical thinking skills.


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Brad Sugars started ActionCOACH in 1993 and today the company is internationally recognized as the leading global business coaching firm and one of the leading and most awarded franchises in the world. Today, ActionCOACH operates in over 70 countries and has more than 1,000 coaches around the world, coaching 15,000 businesses every week to bring them ever greater achievement and success.