In previous posts, I’ve described Core Abilities that shape effective leadership training, including critical thinking. Two of the most prominent researchers and educators in the area of critical thinking are Richard Paul and Linda Elder. In their book Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life, they describe a critical thinker as an individual who:

. . . raises vital questions and problems, gathers and assesses relevant information, and can effectively interpret it; comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards; thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

This definition makes intellectual sense, but I must admit that when I first read it I felt intimidated. How in the world will I or other busy people learn to put all of these aspects into practice, let alone teach them through professional development training programs? The mere idea of performing all of these tasks with every problem or decision is daunting. It would seem that the only way to ensure completion of each aspect of this type of critical thinking is to set it up as a checklist or step-by-step process.

Unfortunately, this is how critical thinking is often taught—as a what-to-think process.

Employees in a typical learning and development training program memorize a list of steps, test the process against a few case studies, and then return to the job, expected to apply newfound skills across all areas. A few weeks later, these workers are not using the learned critical-thinking processes in their jobs.

When a supervisor questions why, a typical response is that there is no clear starting point like the case studies provided. The real world is too complex and is changing far too quickly. It’s important to remember that critical thinking is a way of thinking, not a prescribed method or a set of steps.

Let’s unpack critical thinking by first looking at what it is not. We need to be careful to avoid confusing critical thinking with fault finding. Fault finding and being critical are used interchangeably. As a result, critical thinking and fault finding are mistakenly associated.

People who are fault finding spend most of their energy finding reasons that something will not work. These people often think they are being helpful by breaking down issues and pointing out potential mistakes. Though the intention may be good, the outcome typically keeps others spiraling on the visible factors, trying to correct the surface-level faults pointed out by another.

On the other hand, effective critical thinking does not stop at breaking down; it builds up. The purpose of critical thinking is to understand a situation or problem with the ultimate goal of formulating a solution. Critical thinkers study a situation at the core, analyzing its makeup, cause, and the many factors involved. So, rather than applying a pejorative association, we can equate the word critical with cautious and purposeful.

There’s another cautionary tale for defining this ability—don’t associate critical thinking with “paralysis by analysis.” A common visual image people conjure up when conceptualizing the critical thinker is the wacky professor with his fingers spread deeply into his tangled hair as he labors over piles of data. Ask the pensive professor what he thinks, and he’ll reply with qualifying remarks, often leaving people frustrated and without any decision or action plan.

In arriving at conclusions (regarding what to believe or what to do), critical thinking sometimes yields equally strong premises on several fronts—and even produces contradictory or conflicting ideas. In these cases, bear in mind that multiple valid conclusions are possible, and it may become necessary to act on one of them before a clear avenue to the best conclusion can be reached.

The act of reaching a conclusion is an important aspect of critical thinking. As I mentioned earlier, for the ability to be effective, it must lead to an output.

What does this output look like? The output of critical thinking is the answers to the questions “Why?” and “How?” This output then feeds into creative thinking to produce a range of options, which generates new questions and further refines the options available until a preferred course of action is reached.

Because my colleagues and I believe in the value of effective critical thinking, we have spent time investigating this core ability and developing optimal ways to learn and apply it within our professional development training programs. We have discovered that at the core of an effective critical thinker is a person who asks good questions. The key word here is good. It is natural for all of us to ask questions. Questioning expands our knowledge and exposes errors, equipping us to approach situations with a broader spectrum of information—and therefore be more effective in acquiring and filtering new data. What isn’t always so natural (or easy) is to ask good questions that uncovers the gems just below the surface.

In the business world, individuals and organizations must ask good questions, those that can affect the direction a team takes. Not all cultures—including our own—cultivate the innate questioning talents of children, so questions asked by adults tend to settle at the visible layer. For instance, take a car.

A visible layer to how a car works is that it has a motor and an engine and you put gas in it, turn the key, and it works. But really, how it works has to do with all of the interrelated systems that are composed of mechanical parts working together. Understanding a car at the visible layer is just fine; however, understanding why your organization continues to spiral around the same issues year after year requires that you go deeper and understand the interrelated systems.

We strive to foster a culture that encourages critical thinking and the asking of good questions, and find that the most effective leadership training programs that we build and facilitate contain a healthy critical thinking component as well. More on this topic and the other Core Abilities to come in future posts, but for now, I encourage you to summon your inner child, be curious, and ask good questions. You’ll be surprised at what you might learn.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

Mike Vaughan

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