Professional Development

Critical Thinking vs Problem Solving: What’s the Difference?

In our blog “Importance of Problem Solving Skills in Leadership,” we highlighted problem solving skills as a distinct skill set. We outlined a 7-step approach in how the best leaders solve problems.

Critical thinking vs. problem solving

But are critical thinking and problem solving the same? Also, if there are differences, what are they? Although many educators and business leaders lump critical thinking and problem solving together, there are differences:

Problem solving uses many of the same skills required for critical thinking; e.g., observation, analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and reflection. Critical thinking is an important ingredient of problem solving.

Critical thinking vs. problem solving: Not all problems require critical thinking skills

Not every problem-solving skill is a critical thinking skill. That is because not every problem requires thinking. A problem like opening a stubborn pickle jar could simply require brute strength. On the other hand, it becomes a thinking skill when you remember to tap the edge of the pickle jar lid to loosen the seal.

Also, some problem-solving skills are the exact opposite of critical thinking. When you follow directions or use muscle memory or rote (memorization) thinking, there is no critical thinking required. Likewise, skills of persuasion or public oratory are thinking skills, but aren’t necessarily critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking vs. problem solving: The role of emotional intelligence

In our blog What is the role of communication in critical thinking?” we highlighted one author’s argument that critical thinking and problem solving is not always a purely rational process. While critical thinkers are in great demand in the hiring marketplace, employees who are emotionally intelligent bring even greater value to an organization.

Writing for Business News Dailyeditor Chad Brooks describes emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand your emotions and recognize the emotions and motivations of those around you.”

So, when looking for star performers, research shows “that emotional intelligence counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be a star performer.”

Further, in today’s collaborative workplace environment, “hiring employees who can understand and control their emotions – while also identifying what makes those around them tick—is of the utmost importance.”

Finally, one expert notes that dealing with emotions is an important part of critical thinking. Emotions can be at the root of a problem. They are frequently symptomatic of problems below the surface. Problem solving when dealing with emotions requires openness to authentic emotional expressions. It requires the understanding that when someone is in pain, it is a problem that is real.

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Critical thinking and problem solving: A deeper dive

A recap of the distinct differences between critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking, according to an article on Drexel University’s Graduate College webpage “utilizes analysis, reflection, evaluation, interpretation, and inference to synthesize information that is obtained through reading, observing, communicating, or experience.”

The goal of critical thinking is to evaluate the credibility of both the information and its source. It questions the central issue and how the information will inform intelligent decisions. Finally, it asks the question, “Where does this information lead me?”

Problem solving, as previously mentioned, uses many of those skills, but “it takes the process a step further to identify obstacles and then to strategically map out a set of solutions to solve the problem. That extra step in problem solving is identifying obstacles as well as mapping out a strategic set of solutions to resolve the problem.

How to develop critical thinking skills to become a better problem solver

1. Develop your analytical skills.

Pay attention and be more observant. Ask the questions “who, what, where, and why” and learn as much as possible about the topic or problem. Map everything out to imprint or gain a visual understanding and focus on the differences between fact, opinion, and your own bias.

2. Learn the skill of evaluating

As a subset of analysis, you can become skilled in evaluation by:

  • comparing similar and related topics, programs, and issues. How are they different, and where are the similarities?
  • looking for trends that support (or refute) what you intuitively feel is the solution
  • recognizing barriers or conflicts to successful problem resolution
  • asking questions and gathering information—assuming nothing, ever.

3. Interpretation with the help of a mentor or someone more experienced

Interpreting a problem accurately employs both analytical and evaluating skills. With practice, you can develop this skill, but to hone your interpretation skills, it is advisable to seek the help of an experienced mentor.

You’ll need to do the following:

  • know how your own biases or opinions can be a roadblock to the best decision making
  • recognize that cultural differences can be a barrier to communication
  • look at the problem from the point of view of others
  • learn as much as you can about the problem, topic, or experience
  • synthesize everything you have learned in order to make the connections and put the elements of a problem together to form its solution

4. Acquire the skill and habit of reflection.

Being reflective is applicable to almost every aspect of your personal and professional life. To open your mind to reflection, think back to your educational experience. Your instructor may have asked you to keep a reflective journal of your learning-related experiences. A reflective journal requires expressive writing, which, in turn, relieves stress.

Perhaps you have just had a disagreement with a coworker, who became abusive and personal. Not everyone can come up with those instant snappy comebacks on the spot, and it is usually best to disengage before the situation gets worse.

Here’s where reflective journaling helps. When you’re in a calmer state of mind, you can journal the incident to:

  • gain deeper insights into your thought processes and actions—How do you feel about not defending yourself from the colleague’s accusations or personal abuse? What was the perfect response that eluded you in the stress of the moment?
  • build a different approach to problems—It could be that your co-worker perceives you as unapproachable or unreceptive to suggestions and criticism. Maybe it’s time to have a frank discussion to help you see yourself through the eyes of the coworker.
  • get closer to making significant changes in your life—Your journal entries may have displayed a pattern of your behavior on the job, which elicits consistent negative reactions from more than one co-worker.

Your takeaways:

  • When evaluating critical thinking vs. problem solving, the elements of both appear to blend into a distinction without a difference.
  • Good problem solvers employ the steps of critical thinking, but not all problem solving involves critical thinking.
  • Emotional intelligence is an attribute that is a hybrid skill of problem solving and critical thinking.
  • You can hone your critical thinking skills to become a better problem solver through application of analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and reflection.

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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