The power of critical thinking at work

Oct 07, 2020

6 mins

The power of critical thinking at work
Cécile Pichon

Psychologue du travail, coach et consultante RH

Should critical thinking come into play at work? While we may agree on the value of using our finely tuned critical sense in private life, does it have a place in the world of work? Given the divide between employers and their staff, is it really wise to expect to be able to debate ideas in the workplace? And, by the way, what exactly is critical thinking? Let’s break it down.

Understanding critical thinking

While the word “critical” often has negative connotations—your mind goes directly to all those derogatory remarks that people make about each other—it actually comes from the Greek kritikē (κριτική), which mostly means the art of discernment. Your brain produces thoughts every day without you having to order them to come up with them. They are a rich synthesis of your knowledge, experience and beliefs. Now is the time to use your faculty for critical thinking by taking a step back from these thoughts. Critical thinking, which is part of a complex cognitive process, is a voluntary, conscious, and focused approach that you can use to get out of your subjectivity and lean more towards objectivity. This demanding approach can also extend to the thoughts and ideas that surround you in broader ways.

Everyone has a natural tendency to be a critical thinker. However, to be truly effective, critical thinking needs to be based on facts and evidence. It’s about seeking out the different aspects of an issue and scrutinizing them through the filter of reason, far removed from feeling and emotion.

Why it’s important to be a critical thinker

We are not sheep

Critical thinking can benefit everyone. We can avoid errors in reasoning and can become aware of the influence of people and emotions on ways of thinking, without getting fooled. A bit of critical thinking helps in particular with:

  • Fighting unfounded rumors, fake news and mistaken beliefs. It allows us to check the accuracy of the information shared on social networks, but also from our relatives, and friends, for example.
  • Forming an opinion and fighting against conformism, manipulation, and indoctrination. You can take the time to form your own opinion on different subjects, and then take part in the debate.
  • Not falling into the trap of subjectivity. Critical thinking lets you take a step back from the preconceived ideas and reactions dictated by your senses and emotions, which sometimes can make us irrational.
  • Coming up with ideas, being creative, and making changes. Critical thinking allows us to question certain preconceived notions and ways of thinking that could be changed or improved.

Critical thinking within organizations

As you may have gathered, critical thinking also has its place within companies: to make progress, organizations need objectivity and rationality. Critical thinking is at the heart of development, innovation, and transformation. It’s not always easy, however, to express an opinion or to even question what exists within a company. Hierarchy can inhibit staff members from using critical thinking while discussing their managers’ or employers’ ideas and decisions. However, critical thinking remains essential to guide decisions at all levels.

This is particularly valued in positions that involve strategy, leadership and management: knowing how to question yourself, to get some perspective, but also to think critically, is essential whenever there are major decisions to be made. Being able to take a step back from your own ideas or those of your team, or to change your point of view, is especially important when you reach a level in the business where no one dares to challenge you anymore. Good critical thinking also seems to be applicable in positions that include problem-solving and continuous improvement issues, in other words, in a lot of jobs and sectors.

Developing your critical thinking

A mind that is made up—or one that is open?

Far from being inherent, critical thinking is developed in childhood and continues through the formative years. This is quite paradoxical. On the one hand, the education you get in your youth aims to provide content, through learning and knowledge. On the other hand, a true education must allow you to build this thinking machine on your own so as not to reduce education to mere formatting.

Knowledge and methods

On one hand, there is knowledge; on the other hand, there are tools that allow us to think. So, if critical thinking requires a real method to function, it must be based on solid theoretical skills and knowledge in the practiced field. (If you haven’t mastered a science, it’s difficult to give an opinion on research work in that field).

At the heart of the method, there is doubt which acts as a safeguard against any rushed thoughts and beliefs. Allowing yourself to doubt is a self-corrective practice that keeps you from falling into any traps. In his remarks on happiness, French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, who wrote under the pseudonym of Alain, reminds us that doubt is essential to reasoning in an impartial manner. “The principle of true courage is doubt. The idea of shaking up a thought that we trusted is a brave idea. Every inventor has questioned what no one else doubted. That was the true blasphemy.”

To use critical thinking in your individual or collective decision-making, here a few useful steps:

  1. Formalise the problem and state it verbally or in writing. For example, let’s say your team is dissatisfied with the software they’re using. Is everyone complaining just for the sake of it, or does the tool really not meet the specifications? What are your requirements for this tool? What is its purpose? What service does it have to provide? Why does the existing software no longer seem to satisfy its users?
  2. Gather information to examine the different aspects of the issue. In this example, what other existing software would provide a similar service? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these? But also, what would another one cost, in terms of the time and energy needed to invest in making a change, and its impact on the team and clients?
  3. Verify the accuracy of the sources of information. Think about the possible reasons and fears the teams may have around changing tools that could affect the decision. Marketing spiel from the sales representatives could also distract you from noticing defects in the tools and lead you to make the wrong choice. At this stage, you have to try to distinguish objective facts from subjective interpretations.
  4. Compare viewpoints by interacting with other involved parties. For example, why not talk to other users of the proposed new software, or hold a team meeting about the issue to gather everyone’s opinions?
  5. Analyse the arguments for each of the options and the consequences they might have on the decisions to be made. Finally, you could make a spreadsheet listing the options and then count the “pros” and “cons”. This way you can prioritize the solutions before making a decision.

The more you practice critical thinking, the more it will become ingrained. It is important to pay attention to any potential pitfalls in your thinking. Your brain sometimes leads you to take shortcuts; this is called “cognitive bias”. These biases act as optical illusions on your thinking, causing you to make errors in reasoning. Knowing them is one way to give yourself the chance to avoid them. You probably already know about some of them, such as confirmation bias, anchoring bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and many other biases that you can learn to recognize.

Enhance your critical thinking skills for job interviews

You tell yourself that a job interview is when you most want to fit into the mold of the employer’s expectations. You may think it is not the time to give off negative vibes by exercising critical thinking. Wrong. On the contrary, this is a rather sought-after quality, and you would be well advised to embrace it.

  • Demonstrate perspective on your experience
    Showing that you can put your experience into perspective is a good way to prove your critical thinking skills to a recruiter. Describing the facts as objectively as possible, based on the different factors and their consequences, without getting emotional or critical is a good way to show that you are able to see what was good and what was not so good, without resorting to either blaming your former employer or to self-flagellation. This will show that you will take future experiences calmly.

  • Give your vision of the job
    Sharing your vision of the job, the sector, or the industry during the interview can be just as interesting as showing your critical thinking skills. This is another way to reassure your interviewer by showing them that you are not short-sighted. When a business sets out to recruit someone new, sometimes they are looking for a breath of fresh air, a new element to revitalize the team. You don’t recruit someone if it’s just to keep doing what you’ve been doing. So all your ideas are welcome.

  • Vary the points of view
    When you bring up a subject, show that you’re able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. For example, let them know that you understand the point of view of a client, a service provider, or a superior in the management of a project. It’s a way to prove that you can take a step back and take the opinions of others into account so that decisions are then collective, benefitting as many people as possible.

  • Dare to doubt
    Finally, another way to show your critical mind is to just admit doubt and lack of knowledge. If you are asked a tricky question, don’t hesitate to say that you don’t know. To show doubt is to acknowledge that you don’t have the right information to answer it, or that your thinking about the subject is not fully formed. An attitude of intellectual honesty will work in your favor.

Ultimately, isn’t it your duty, rather than simply your right, to use your capacity for critical thinking? When faced with the pitfalls of thinking, boldly stating that the proposed solution is not necessarily the only good option is a demanding but constructive approach. By thinking critically, you discipline and improve your thinking little by little, making this soft skill your best ally for all strategic decisions in both your personal and professional life.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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