Much has been written about how to develop critical thinking skills in adults. Mastery of independent critical thinking is the key to making intelligent decisions on the job. This post describes how to apply those skills and improve on a solid foundation.
Critical thinking skills are essential tools on the job so that you can:
- improve your decision-making through evaluation of any argument or presentation as well as its impact on the organization
- become an independent thinker and develop self-confidence and personal ethics
- become more deeply and intellectually engaged with your coworkers and supervisors and form lasting working relationships
- critically evaluate your own work performance and find ways to improve its quality and efficiency
- develop improved comprehension and communication skills
In this post we will cover how to improve critical thinking skills at work.
We will describe how to develop thinking skills in adults, as well as how to improve critical thinking and problem skills. Finally, we will present some suggested activities to improve critical thinking and problem solving skills at work.
The first step in how to improve critical thinking skills at work is to know the difference between critical and uncritical thinking and how to improve critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Critical thinking is a deliberate and systematic processing of information. That process is at the foundation of making better decisions and understanding what can cloud clear thinking.
Most of the thinking we do in our daily routine is uncritical. That’s not a bad thing, because “running on automatic” conserves the cognitive energy required to switch to higher-order, critical thinking.
Pitfalls in the search to develop critical thinking skills include so-called “ignorant certainty.” Ignorant certainty is the belief that there are always correct and definite answers to any problem or question.
While ignorant certainty usually works for academic research, sometimes the answers are either contradictory or are from unreliable sources.
So, ignorant certainty can lead to what’s known as “naïve relativism.” Naïve relativism is the belief that there actually is no real truth and that every argument is equal. Naïve relativism, unfortunately, misses the point of critical thinking, which is to arrive at the best and most complete answer or solution.
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How to improve critical thinking skills at work: the 3 basic habits to develop in how to improve thinking skills
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Helen Lee Bouygues identifies three easy things anyone can do to improve their critical thinking skills:
1. Always question your assumptions
The author cites an example of a retail clothing chain whose prices were based on the assumption that customers had access to far more income than they really had. That assumption led to overpricing, lower sales, and millions in lost income.
The first step in questioning our assumptions is to know when to ask those questions. That would be in cases where the stakes are highest, where a questioning approach is definitely helpful. Those questions should include:
- How do you know what you think you know? Is your information or data firsthand? Hearsay? A product of groupthink?
- What does independent research say about those assumptions? The information age has resulted in a treasure trove of research, opinion, and urban legends. Your job is to separate the junk information from the treasure and get to the heart of the matter.
- What are the alternatives if the unexpected happens—your suppliers can’t handle the increased volume? Did anyone anticipate four years ago how COVID-19 could disrupt everything?
2. Practice reasoning through logic
When listening to an argument or pitch, pay very close attention to the logical steps you or someone else constructed. Essentially, if you, or the person trying to convince you of something can proceed from a starting point of mutual agreement to a desirable endpoint, the way to overcome resistance is to use the tiny steps of logic.
Critical thinking is where emotion stops and logic begins. And logic is not necessarily the twin to common sense. The latter can be adulterated with biases, such as:
- Confirmation Bias: the subconscious assumption that we’re right. This is a bias that can be baked into our psyche. It’s the emotional block that rejects the ego-crushing idea that we are wrong. This bias proceeds on the assumption that something is true and results in data gathering with the goal of upholding the bias.
- Action Bias: acting too quickly before thinking something through. This bias also has an emotional root. That emotion is impatience and the worry that if we don’t act quickly, the problem will worsen.
- Association Bias: In short, association bias results from irrational opinions about how two objects or events are related; e.g., rain dances worked because the dancers danced until it rained.
3. Look for diversity of thought as well as collaboration.
Politically-charged discussion boards on the web are a prime example of how echo chambers stifle critical thinking. On the job, the more we listen to people who share our views, those views become polarized and impermeable to change.
Though not easy, one early step in successful critical thinking is to step away from your beliefs, biases, and personal bubble. In team settings, leaders need to withhold their opinions and ask their team members to communicate separately with the leader.
How to improve critical thinking skills at work: some activities to improve critical thinking
Ransom Patterson, writing for a younger audience in College Info Geek, makes the following seven suggestions, which are applicable to how to develop critical thinking skills in the business world:
1. Ask the basic (and correct) questions
When setting out to solve a problem, remember that sometimes “analysis paralysis” can set in and the original question gets lost in the shuffle. Patterson advises getting back to basics that occurred to you when you set out to solve the problem in the first place; to wit:
- What is it that you already know?
- How did you come to know what you know?
- What, if anything, are you attempting to prove, disprove, demonstrate, or critique?
- Is there anything you are overlooking?
2. Again, question your basic assumptions.
We discussed this earlier, but it bears repeating. If you are thinking through a problem and fail to question your basic assumptions, you are building a foundation on sand. The key is to sift out your biases through the filter of critical thinking. Then you can critically evaluate your beliefs about what is possible, prudent, or appropriate without biases getting in the way.
3. Know your thought processes.
Snap decisions based on cognitive biases and personal prejudices can sabotage the benefits of critical thinking. In addition to those biases discussed previously, cognitive biases are the errors that result from the human brain’s tendency to jump to conclusions based on intuitive judgments.
Cognitive biases can be overcome through ruthless self-appraisal and rigorous critical thinking. That thinking focuses attention on mental activities involved in solving problems through objectivity and subjective experience.
4. Turn the tables and remove blocks to real progress on a hard problem.
It’s natural to believe that every effect has a cause. So, if cause X results in effect Y, what if effect Y actually caused cause X? What new branches of investigation could reverse the thought process engender?
5. Look at and evaluate the existing evidence.
That means taking into consideration other studies and work that has been done related to the problem at hand. If the groundwork is there, maybe that’s a greater starting point.
However, first, you need to critically evaluate existing sources. Ask yourself, who gathered the information, what methods did they use in gathering it, and why did they gather it? Also, were there biases or hidden agendas in those sources?
6. Think for yourself.
You need to strike a balance between becoming enmeshed in your research and just relying on your own thinking in answering tough questions.
7. Know that it is not possible to think critically all the time.
Unless you want to be like the character Sheldon Cooper in the TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory, it is impossible—and probably not socially acceptable—to think critically all the time.
Look at critical thinking as a tool to be deployed when important decisions or difficult problems arrive. You don’t need to think critically when making every decision. However, when lapses occur during those times, and critical thinking is warranted, be aware of the symptoms. Warning signs are feelings of defensiveness, impatience, and the urge to act when cool and critical logical thinking is needed.
- You need to develop critical thinking skills to be more effective in your job.
- Critical thinking is deliberate and systematic and requires a knowledgeable application of its techniques.
- You can improve your critical thinking skills by always testing your assumptions, practicing reasoning through logic, and seeking diversity of thought and collaboration.
- There are 7 reliable practices that can help you improve your critical thinking skills on the job. They begin with asking the correct questions, questioning your basic assumptions and factoring in bias.
- At the core of those 7 practices are self-knowledge, creative approaches, and achieving a balance between self-reliance and becoming limited by the work of others.
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