Critical thinking ability at work is, well... critical

Learn to be curious

When something is presented to you, don’t take it at face value; make time to look beneath the surface. Ask yourself if there is evidence of bias, if some facts are missing and/or misinterpreted. Check the validation of data sources and use your own experience and judgement to make a thorough assessment. Think about the political elements behind recommendations and use your knowledge of the organization and industry sector to filter these ideas until you can come to a conclusion.

Question your own bias

We all have our own opinions and unconscious biases that influence our decision-making, many of which we don’t even recognize. Take a moment to think about how your education, experience and cultural background have shaped your opinions on various topics. Be open to the idea that you might have an unconscious bias that affects your view of a situation and gets in the way of good decision-making. Try to put aside your biases and think of your challenges from a "clean slate." Seek other opinions to help ensure you examine all sides of an issue.

Think of the big picture

As early in your career as you can, start taking in a broader perspective. Gain an understanding of the issues in your industry sector, stay in touch with local and world news and get involved in various associations that will help give you a broader perspective. Understand how each of your job roles integrates with the strategic vision of your organization. Identify future opportunities, brainstorm and role play in order to see yourself at different levels in your career. Seek the opinions of outside contacts, learn from them and apply some of their ideas to your work.

Clarify options

Learn to work through various scenarios while looking at the potential of each option you are proposing. Use the simple "pro/con" exercise for each idea. Determine the impact and costs of each option, clarify which stakeholders will be most affected, what their reaction would be and how this would be dealt with should you choose a particular option. Look at the benefits and detriments. Do additional research to ensure you have the correct facts. Finally, be sure to examine the change management issues that will ultimately arise with any of your decisions.

Use personal time

Don’t limit "thinking" to work life. Engage in outside activities that build brain power. Read a wide variety of books and articles, both industry-related and otherwise, and engage in crossword puzzles, Sudoko or other brain-teasers. Join a book club where discussion can widen your thinking on a topic.

Learn to anticipate

Learn as much as you can about your organization and its business. Look for patterns that repeat themselves as this helps you to predict the future. Observe your colleagues, getting to know how they think and behave so that you can predict and respond accordingly. Pay attention to who has influence in the organization, where information tracks and who knows who. Train yourself to think about the cause and effect of every decision. Anticipate reactions and plan how you will respond.

Think positive

Many leaders think of problems instead of opportunities. In this case, the so-called problem is seen from a negative perspective, an obstacle or barrier that is in the way. Moving through problem-solving with a negative attitude takes more energy. Thinking in terms of opportunities opens up discussion to creative thinking and innovation.

Seek multiple views

The old saying "two heads are better than one" still holds true today. Seek out multiple perspectives, especially from people who have experience with the situation under discussion. Use your imagination and put yourself in the shoes of others; think about how they would perceive your issues. Exploring different points of view will enable you to change how a situation might look and this, in turn, will change how you will respond.

Train others

Critical thinking shouldn’t simply be left up to leaders. Every employee needs to learn to be a good decision-maker in order to become more productive. Create a safe environment and encourage employees to ask questions and to challenge assumptions and decisions. Teach them basic problem-solving methodologies and make it consistent throughout your organization. Conduct project debriefings discussing what went right, what challenges were encountered and how things might be different the next time.

Be available

Remind employees there is no such thing as a "dumb" question. Invite them to raise concerns as early as possible, but also teach them to arrive at your doorstep with potential solutions instead of just presenting a problem. Encourage creativity and innovation and reward employees for this. Seek multiple opportunities for idea creation.

Be reflective

Take time to think about your thinking. Recall your unconscious biases and work to overcome them. Think about areas where you could have done better and strategize how you would accomplish your task or take advantage of an opportunity the next time. On the other hand, be careful not to focus on your mistakes to such an extent that it becomes depressing. Your positive attitude at work is important.

Explore idea transfer

It isn’t important that you recreate the wheel, so to speak, so take time to explore your network to find other leaders who have confronted similar situations. Observe what other industry sectors are doing, contact a wide variety of leaders and seek their opinion. Seek out other leaders within your own organization and actively engage in collecting multiple ideas.

Improve listening skills

A leader with good listening skills is able to focus on what is being said without getting distracted and mentally shifting to something else during the conversation. These leaders hold off on their responses until the other person is finished talking. They avoid having all the answers, and instead, ask good questions to help their employees think for themselves.


Source: Critical Thinking for Managers: A Manifeso, Crystal King, ChangeThis, September, 2005.

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