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Thinking Critically, A Much-Needed Skill

Seth Godin, author of Linchpin, recently posted something on his blog about the importance of thinking critically . . . professionally, personally, politically, and otherwise.  I couldn’t agree more and have begun to challenge myself to think more critically about lots of things, especially things I believe I know a lot about.  (I hate to admit it, but when I believe myself to be an expert on something it’s probably a good time to bone up on the subject.)  I’m writing about this because I think it’s a skill in the workplace that is underused and, quite often, undervalued.

Let’s start with the definition of “critical thinking”.  After finding a few definitions that I thought were really complex, I landed on this:  purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do.  I liked three words here because I think they are the key to making really great decisions as a result of critical thinking:  purposeful, reflective, and judgment.  First, critical thinking is purposeful.  To me, purposeful means that there is intention to discover, uncover, learn, shift and see things from various viewpoints.  When someone purposefully thinks about a subject, they are, in effect, peeling back layers to reveal something beneath.  Second, critical thinking is reflective.  In my view, reflective means that there is a commitment to ruminating on new discoveries and learning.  Reflecting is taking the time to turn an idea around over and over to look at all its facets.  Third, critical thinking is making a judgment.  Of-course, one must draw a conclusion from the reflection.  But, it’s important to note here that judgment must come AFTER purposefulness and reflection.  Judgment without purpose and reflection is not critical thinking.  It’s plain and simple judging.  Therein lies the problem with lots of decisions I see being made (and sadly, have made myself from time to time.)

Decision making skills are really important in the workplace, particularly for leaders.  Certainly, decisiveness is often valued in the workplace.  But sometimes decisiveness is influenced by short-term agendas when it should be influenced by long-term payoffs.  Granted, sometimes a decision just needs to be made because there’s a burning issue to be extinguished.  But, after the fire, what kind of analysis is conducted to fix the problem that caused the fire in the first place?  And, what if there isn’t anything burning that requires a snap decision?  What can we do to think more critically and ensure that our decisions best serve the organization’s vision and mission?

  • Find evidence.  Avoid heresay.  Get to the bottom of things yourself.
  • Ask questions.  LOTS of questions.
  • Get information from a variety of sources.  Don’t just consult the inner circle and the usual suspects.
  • Be willing to recognize a problem.  In other words, call it what it is!
  • Table (or toss) information that isn’t relevent to your issue and prioritize what is.
  • Notice and recognize unstated assumptions and values.  Is there something people aren’t saying that you should know more about?
  • Suspend your own beliefs and assumptions in order to clear the way for new possibilities.

More than anything, I believe critical thinking takes discipline.  All of the actions listed above require discipline, and practice.  Some of them require courage because when you’re in the heat of a problem, it can feel a little uncomfortable to say, “Hold on, we need to ask some questions, prioritize information, and suspend beliefs and assumptions.”  That’s why I believe leadership role modeling and support in the culture is necessary to make critical thinking valued in the workplace.

What do you think?

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