Are Your Team Members Critical Thinkers?

Think CriticallyThe standard in many schools is the teaching of content. Too many questions may be seen as disruptive. Students then go on to higher education or into the workforce and many will just do as they are told and be relatively mediocre at what they do.

The enormous challenges facing companies now are increasing global competition, emerging markets, rising energy costs, burgeoning health care costs, technology, the political and the economic landscape. Associates must be able to think fast and act smart in complex and uncertain situations. That makes critical thinking a real necessity. The good news, however, is that critical thinking can be taught, and applied directly to on-the-job problems and decisions.

What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is the concentration of the body and mind on a situation or problem; with the aim of finding a solution. To develop critical thinking skills you can move beyond a passive acceptance of ideas and rote learning of information toward a knowledge-seeking stance where concepts are broken apart, reconfigured, questioned, combined, and evaluated. The trainer must teach more than just facts and formulas.If companies are to remain competitive in today’s business environment, they need to incorporate critical thinking into all aspects of their training programs.

A Questioning Process
In their haste to keep projects moving, many managers instinctively want to provide quick solutions when associates have problems or questions. Rather than fostering critical thinking, it teaches associates to rely on your strengths rather than developing their own. I believe that as a manager the goal is to develop leadership skills to help associates to become self-sufficient. Strengthen their critical-thinking muscles by turning questions back to them.

Here are a few sample of answering a question with a question.

  • “What are the risks if we take this action?”
  • “What if we did A instead of B?”
  • “What if the opposite were true?”
  • “Are you using your brain or your gut?”

Gut instinct is good, but to be effective, it needs to be backed up with logic.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Before engaging in critical thinking exercises, know your strengths and weaknesses. There is no benefit to a brain workout in a field where you have no expertise. Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses will help you avoid banging your head against the wrong wall.

Know Your Biases
None of us can escape our personal histories and cultural influences; good critical thinking requires us to acknowledge them so that we don’t allow them to infringe upon our decision-making. When you have an emotional reaction to an issue, articulate exactly what that emotion is. Explore it and understand it so that it doesn’t color future decisions.

Think With an Open Mind
Often, solutions to problems come from external sources. Keeping an open mind is vital to the critical thinking process. You must keep your mind open and absorb as much external information as you can regarding the situation at hand; then you can proceed to analyze, filter and process the acquired information.

Gut Feel
Use your instinct to investigate questionable pieces of information. If your gut isn’t satisfied with an explanation, ask the person to elaborate. Question facts, read and investigate and test it yourself. Gradually you’ll build up an accurate sense of what deserves more research and how it comports with your own judgment.

Empathy can also help you develop your critical thinking skills. Whether it’s improving your negotiation tactics or understanding an issue better, putting yourself in the shoes of others will help you understand their motivations, aspirations, and uncertainties. You can use this information to get leverage, be persuasive, and be a better person.

Know Your Options
When you want to use your critical thinking skills to take action, it helps to know what your options are. Prioritize, rank or weigh your options. Usually you will have more than one option.

Critical thinking, as much as any other business skill set, can make the difference between success and failure. Once gained, critical thinking skills last a lifetime, and become a powerful asset for organizations seeking a competitive edge.

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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