How Can We Develop Our Critical Thinking Skills?

As humans we think. Thinking comes to us very naturally. Depending on personality traits, job type, and daily activity, a person has between 20,000 and 50,000 thoughts daily. Our natural thinking is spontaneous, and includes bias, insight, good and bad thoughts, error and trial – all combined. As critical thinkers, we analyze, conceptualize, and synthesize our thoughts and information gathered from observation, experiences, and communication. We apply the second order thinking to our natural thoughts – we assess and reconstruct our natural thinking (Paul & Elder, 2002). Simply stated, as critical thinkers we think about the way we think.

The study carried by Greenfield from UCLA in 2009 found that modern learners have developed faster visual processing skills, but have diminished their critical thinking skills. Thus, we have become faster, but “shallower” thinkers. By all means, the technology is not “a bad guy”; in fact the technology can be instrumental in accessing and comparing information quickly. However, we have the ultimate role in critically analyzing and synthesizing what comes to us through tech devices.

Critical thinking is an essential component to successful organizational functioning. Organizational competitiveness, productivity, and adaptability to change depends on the degree that employees on all levels, and especially the leaders, are equipped with critical thinking skills. What strategies could we embrace to develop critical thinking skills on an organization level? While the strategies and tactics can be quite a few since critical thinking development itself is a process rather than a task, here are some that an organization can embrace:

– Leadership recognizing mistakes made in the past and having desire to grow and develop as thinkers. Critical thinking is not only logical, but also fairminded, meaning that a critical thinker holds himself accountable to the same standard as he holds others. Once the key personnel become fair-minded to consider the pro’s and con’s of alternative views, this approach not only helps to resolve problems more successfully, but it also boosts employee engagement and morale.

– Adopt the language of critical thinking in policies and decisions, with a clear definition of what “critical thinking” is. Discuss with employees your organization’s desire to embrace and cultivate critical thinking. Discuss and explore with your employees what exactly they can do to meet this expectation. For instance, if an employee notices that a current customer call system does not work well and frustrates customers, he can submit suggestions on improving the process to his managers.

– Open policies and procedures to being questioned and replaced with better policies and procedures that guide processes and employees more effectively. Some organizations successfully use wikis where a proposed policy or procedure is open for review and proposed edits by all employees.

– Take a long term view of building a culture of critical thinking and focus on the long term success rather that the short term outcomes. That means taking into consideration environment, community, internal and external customers, and not only the monetary profit line.

– Coach employees how to think critically. The coach himself has to exercise critical thinking before coaching another employee. Also, there should be a level of trust between the two. Coach can turn employee’s questions back to her in a non-threatening manner. For instance:

Where does this project go next?
Where do you think it fits within our organizational goals?
Why is it important to do this (do this now)?
What impact does it have on our customers/ clients?
What do you think is the priority? Why?
If we do not complete this task (or we are late), what consequences would we experience?
What do you think are the causes of the problem? possible solutions? risks?

The process of developing critical thinking skills can be compared to riding a bike – at the beginning we are clumsy and uncomfortable, but the more we do it, the more comfortable and proficient we become at riding. Developing critical thinking skills requires a sustained mental effort but it brings out great personal and professional benefits – better work-life balance, improved relationships, higher productivity and satisfaction.