Critical thinking skills are highly sought after in today’s workforce. The ability to quickly identify issues that may be impeding business success and to introduce strategies that improve individual and enterprise-wide performance are soft skills integral to any budding or established leader.
There is a tendency to believe that hard skills like computer savvy, writing proficiency, and public speaking can be taught while soft skills are inherent to a personality. This is false. If critical thinking came naturally to people, the corporate landscape would arguably be a much different place.
- What do you do when faced with a problem you’re unable to solve?
Perhaps the answer lies in breaking down critical thinking into four measurable phases: the ability to execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate.
Converting instructions into action requires verbal reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving. How can you evaluate your ability to execute? Again, ask yourself:
- Do you complete allparts of your assignments or does your manager keep following up with you?
- Do you double check your work or the work of your team members?
- Do you hit deadlines?
- Do you slow your team by repeatedly asking for status updates?
It’s helpful to confirm that you understand the directions given. Clarify directions once given, or if you’re a little unsure, follow up with your manager before starting on the task so it’s fresh in your mind. If you’re a manager, ask for unbiased feedback and make sure the team knows their comments will be respected, heard, and truly considered. Whether you’re an employee or manager, ask, “How can I do this differently in the future?”; “What suggestions do you have for me for next time I approach a task like this?”
Synthesizing is the ability to sort through information and figure out what is important. Let’s focus on summarizing the key takeaways after an important meeting. Here, you want to be able to answer “yes” to these questions:
- Can you identify all the important takeaways?
- Do you exclude all unimportant items? Do you get caught up in the less important details?
- Do you accurately assess the relative significance of the important insights? After a meeting, do you find yourself focusing on different action items than the rest of the group?
- Can you summarize important information clearly and succinctly? Do you remember the details?
Synthesis is a skill that, like any other, grows with practice. If you find yourself needing improvement here, work on confirming action items/important notes from the meeting. Organize them in terms of high-low priority and confirm you understand the importance/sense of urgency associated with each. Take notes! It’s impossible to remember every little detail and the last thing you want is to wait too long to follow up on something and forget the details.
Now we move on from identifying what is important to determining what should be done. The primary goal is to consistently make recommendations that are well-founded. Ask yourself:
- Do you always provide a recommendation when asking questions instead of relying on your manager or team member to come up with answers?
- When providing a recommendation, do you voice the first thing that pops into your head without considering the challenges/consequence? Or are you thoughtful in your suggestions?
- Are you open to receiving constructive criticism or feedback on your recommendation?
- Do you consider alternatives before landing on a recommendation? Before recommending something, do you consider any challenges/consequences?
- Is your recommendation backed by strong, sensible reasoning?
You should come up with recommendations or solutions before coming to your manager or sharing with your team. This is for two reasons: 1) you may be able to figure it out yourself, and 2) it provides you an opportunity to check your critical thinking and improve your skills. If you share a recommendation and experience pushback, ask them (openly) for feedback. Ask how they came to that conclusion or what they considered when coming up with the answer. Sometimes we think certain things are more challenging than others or consider certain problems to be more important than others, but outside or alternative perspectives can guide us.
This is the ability to create something out of nothing. Let’s say you’re in a study group and your task is to learn a topic and then train others about it. In this phase, you must be able to translate a vision in others’ heads (and your own) into projects that can be executed.
- Do you struggle when tackling a large project? Do you have trouble putting your ideas into writing or visuals that people understand?
- Are you able to convert others’ visions into feasible plans for realizing those visions?
- Do you have trouble answering questions about the projects you’re working on? Anything from content to progress?
This is another skill that you develop over time. Many people don’t even make it to this phase because they don’t give themselves permission to do the kind of open-ended thinking required. Understand that it’s good to spend time thinking. Sometimes I struggle to put my ideas into action so I will ask others to brainstorm with me. Or I’ll throw some of my ideas “out there” and ask for feedback. I never get too invested in an idea because my brain works differently than others and if it doesn’t make sense to others, it’s not the right direction to go. Collaborating with others allows you to integrate new ideas you’ve never thought of. It also tends to make your projects clearer and more concise. Consistently asking for feedback after completing projects is important as well.
Now that we know how to approach critical thinking, remember:
- Question everything. Questions can be more important than answers when critically thinking. Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to do it.
- Suspend your judgement and keep your bias out of it!
- Emphasize data over beliefs
- Don’t fear the silence! Pause. Sometimes we’re tempted to say the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, pause and think.
- Consider all possibilities and ideas without accepting them all.
- Look for what others have missed.
- Always ask “what if”…
Are you interested in leveraging critical thinking with the goal of improving the lives of others?
2021-125126 Exp. 08/23