Having established the need for a mind-set shift to more critical thinking, we need to be clear on what that means in the workplace.
In general, critical thinking is the ability to deal with the contradictions and problems of a tumultuous environment in a reasoned, purposeful, productive way. Decisions are made using an approach that is fair, objective, accurate and based on information that is relevant to the situation.
Critical thinking is also reflective and focused, constantly evaluating the thinking process itself. It is thinking with a purpose. Critical thinking requires a healthy dose of skepticism and an equal measure of good judgement.
For decades, companies have relied on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a widely used assessment tool for evaluating the cognitive ability of current and future leaders. Developed in 1925, the model identifies factors that are key to critical thinking and decision making and predicts judgment, problem solving, creativity, openness to experience and other leadership behaviours.
Five sub-tests measure critical thinking as a composite of attitudes, knowledge and skills:
Professionals with high scores in these sub-tests are able to identify and examine the assumptions, influences and biases that might sway them. They stand back from the fray and strategically assess the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems. They make business decisions that answer the right questions, solve the right problems, mitigate risk and improve productivity. They also lead from a position of strength, being able to motivate and move people both inspirationally and intellectually by providing solid reasons for actions.
Whether they lead teams, departments or entire enterprises, leaders who apply the skills of critical thinking to their roles perform at a higher level and offer their organisations a distinct competitive advantage.
Critical thinkers think differently about their impact on the organisation – understanding how their decisions and actions influence business both inside and outside their narrow functional silos. These leaders are able to balance department or team issues with broader company issues and embrace a larger responsibility for the success of the organisation. This keen sense of accountability is what enables them to execute for results now while fulfilling their obligations to positively impact the future.
Leaders who engage in critical thinking also understand the total organisation and how the individual parts work together. Context is key. Now more than ever, business acumen is foundational to effective leadership. It is impossible to apply critical thinking skills to the business of making money without an understanding of the business drivers that connect day-to-day decisions and actions to key financial and strategic performance goals of the organisation. It is one thing to understand one’s role as a leader. It is altogether another thing to understand how to set direction and directly affect the outcomes.
Critical thinking is big-picture thinking too. As Hagemann describes it, “Leaders need to be able to comfortably climb to the 30,000-foot view and analyse a dynamic system, while simultaneously and adeptly analysing information to quickly make decisions across levels.” Critical thinkers operate from a broad perspective in order to make sure the correct problems are addressed and they are taking acceptable risk. They recognise the difference between short-term gains and sustainable, long-term results and lead accordingly.
The advantages of this kind of leadership behavior are readily apparent. Critical thinking enables leaders at every level to understand the impact of their decisions on the business as a whole and ensures both alignment with organisational goals and accountability for results. It’s exactly the type of leadership behaviour demanded by the “new normal” – and exactly what’s missing. And this disconnect is likely to intensify over time.
Given the critical-thinking competency gap exposed by the EDA survey and other research, the obvious assumption is that the traditional development process that businesses have relied upon in the past to prepare leaders simply hasn’t kept up. So, what’s the solution? To accelerate development and raise leadership accountability to a whole new level of awareness and action, there needs to be a new emphasis on critical thinking in leadership development.