Doubt is a Virtue: 10 Ways to Inspire Your Team to Think Critically

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For ages, employers have preferred workers who can complete their tasks and follow whatever instructions their bosses give. Doubt and pushback were viewed as problems by managers who wanted employees to tow the party line.

Today, however, startups and Fortune 500 companies alike are turning to doubters who question every decision within the company.

These critical thinkers help poke holes in company plans in order to strengthen them and provide alternative solutions that are better in the long run. Keep reading to learn how you can foster a team of critical thinkers to move your own company forward.   

Why Companies Value Critical Thinkers

Big data has given companies more information than they could ever hope to process. While analytics tools help soft this information, it’s up to strategic business analysts to ask the right questions and assemble the data in a way that’s helpful. Today’s employees aren’t number crunchers who spend hours balancing spreadsheets; they’re strategists who manage the technology presented to them.

“When brawn was valued over brain, workers were asked to check their critical thinking at the door,” Ira Wolfe writes at Talent Economy. “[Today], they’re expected to carry out a growing list of responsibilities and meet higher expectations with fewer resources. That requires them to think analytically and apply the results of all that thinking without the benefit of supervision or experience.”

Instead of completing a set of tasks each day, employees in the modern workforce are constantly challenged to complete more tasks or complete the same tasks with less. This has made the economy less of a production line and more of a puzzle.

Not only is critical thinking an essential job skill, but it’s also a tool for managers who want to streamline their departments. Kadie Regan at Filtered highlights a few ways critical thinking can help in the workplace. Two of the top benefits include saving time and enhanced communication:

  • Time: You already know that not all information is relevant in decision-making, and critical thinking allows you to remove unnecessary information to get to the heart of the problem.

  • Communication: By focusing only on relevant information, you can communicate your thoughts more effectively and persuade your audiences.

Managers can actually quantify how much creative thinking helps their business and improves their processes.

Managers Are Likely to Promote Critical Thinkers

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Improving your ability to strategically plan saves your department time and makes everyone better informed. It also helps your team in other ways. Essentially, critical thinking is a gateway skill. Breanne Harris at Pearson writes that people who score well in critical thinking assessments are also rated highly by their supervisors in

  • analysis and problem-solving,

  • decision-making,

  • overall job performance,

  • creativity,

  • job knowledge,

  • the ability to evaluate the quality of information presented,

  • and the potential to move up in the organization.

Further, the Brandon Hall Group and Laci Loew surveyed more than 2,100 managers on what they thought would be the most important skills required of leaders in the next five years. Thirty-five percent said critical thinking was the most important, followed by collaboration (32 percent) and creativity (28 percent).

How to Spot Critical Thinking in Job Candidates

When talking to employees and potential job candidates, you can’t just come out and ask whether they’re critical thinkers. Most candidates would self-identify as critical thinkers. Instead, Career Metis recommends looking for specific personality traits that set critical thinkers apart from the crowd:

  • Self-confidence in their ability to reason.

  • Curiosity and the desire to remain well-informed.

  • Flexibility in considering multiple options.

  • Transparency about personal biases.

Critical thinking requires an employee to form their own decisions and to understand that their decisions might change when new information comes to light. One of the best ways to test critical thinking is with examples.  

Dr. John Sullivan offers a few ways companies can screen for critical thinkers during the hiring process. Consider presenting a real scenario that the candidate might encounter and ask how they would solve it. Ask follow-up questions to get them to defend it or present new information that makes them change their answer on the fly.

Dr. Sullivan also suggests presenting a flawed strategic plan and asking the candidate to identify potential issues within the process. This highlights a candidate’s ability to question plans and come up with alternative ideas.  

10 Actionable Steps to Develop Critical Thinkers

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Critical thinking is one of the most universally in-demand skills in the workforce today. Samantha Cole reports at Fast Company that 72 percent of employers think critical thinking is important to an organization’s success, but only half of employers said their employees actually demonstrate this skill.

This leaves employers with two options: Fire existing employees or train them to become critical thinkings. Here are a few steps you can take should you choose the latter.   

1. Give Employees Ownership

“All too frequently, we hear managers complain that their employees don’t think for themselves,” Francesca Gino and Brad Staats write at the Harvard Business Review. “Yet these same managers punish their subordinates for failing to follow instructions. To avoid this pitfall, managers need to separate the outcome from the process. That means specifying what good work should look like without locking down all elements of the process.”

Instead of providing a set of instructions for each project, consider explaining what an ideal finished product would look like. You can also provide resources for help if your employees get stuck. This means they have to connect the dots to make something happen instead of following your orders.

2. Encourage Discussion and Debate

Give decision-making power to your employees by asking them to propose multiple solutions for a problem. Executive coach Joel Garfinkle encourages managers to debate their employees on each point, highlighting the pros and cons while asking them to defend their points of view.

Not only does this help employees recognize their own biases, but it also prepares them to defend their ideas when they need to make similar pitches to upper management.  

3. Adopt ‘Orphan Problems’

“In every organization, there are annoying problems no one claims as their own,” Art Petty writes at The Balance. “Identify an orphan problem and ask for your boss's support in tackling it.”

Orphan problems give your team the opportunity to think critically to solve a problem outside of their normal job duties. These challenges will also give them a chance to enhance their skill sets and get noticed by management. Solving a problem that no one wants to own shows initiative and leadership that can pay off at promotion time.

4. Create Risk-Taking Opportunities

Failure is an important part of any career. To help your employees think critically, let them develop their own solutions and execute the ones they think are best. They may fail, but this gives them an opportunity to find solutions and learn from their mistakes.

DeLynn Senna writes that the best managers give employees the chance to take risks. If your team adopts an orphan problem that no one wants, this could be a safe opportunity to try something new. The risk factor is lower than a revenue-critical project but still, lets your employees try something new and pick themselves up if something goes wrong.    

5. Set Aside Time for Reflection

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In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Nina Bowman writes that some people are so focused on accomplishing a set of tasks each day that they don’t have time for critical thinking.

“[One coworker] kept a jam-packed schedule, running from meeting to meeting,” Bowman writes. “She found it difficult to contribute strategically without the time to reflect on the issues and to ponder options.”

By delegating tasks and eliminating unnecessary meetings, you create more time to focus on problems and to identify creative solutions. This way, you can be actively engaged in meetings, not just a warm body that got an invite.

6. Reward Thinking Instead of Reacting

Some modern offices operate in a constant state of crisis. Whenever a problem arises, employees rush to put out the fire as fast as they can. This can lead to short-term solutions that create bigger problems in the long run.

Robert Kabacoff encourages managers to reward employees who demonstrate that they’ve spent time thinking about a problem and considering their options. The best critical thinkers will identify multiple solutions and work through the one that has the best long-term benefits, not just a short-term plug.   

7. Add Speed to Your Problem-Solving Meetings

This might seem to counter the advice to think instead of react, but forcing employees to think on their feet fuels creativity and forces employees to get out of their comfort zones.

Maren Hogan, CEO of Red branch Media, starts meetings with a fast brainstorm to write down as many solutions to a problem as possible within the first few minutes. Everyone is encouraged to list a few options and creative solutions. Then, the team narrows the most plausible and lists the pros and cons of each. This also creates a team environment for employees to support each other’s ideas and defend their own.  

8. Communicate the Company’s Big Picture

“Understanding the broader organizational strategy helps employees incorporate it into their work,” Tawny Lees writes at CEO.com.

Not only will your employees start to tie their ideas to the company’s goals, but you can use overall corporate goals to brainstorm possible ways to improve your department. Furthermore, you can identify ways other teams have come up with goal-aligned ideas to use as examples for your own team to follow.

9. Foster a Question-Friendly Environment

Two of the most dangerous phrases within a company are “because I said so” and “because we’ve always done it that way.” Both of those phrases close the door on learning why something is done and identifying ways to do something better.

Todd Wallis encourages employees to create a question-friendly work environment for curious minds. By teaching employees to ask open-ended questions without one right answer, they can start to evaluate their choices and the processes around them for continuous improvement.

10. Use Both Side of the Brain

Critical thinking requires employee to use both sides of the brain: They need to creatively find solutions and logically defend them. Pam Warren encourages managers to create more creative opportunities for employees in highly logical or analytical positions, and vice versa. When both parts of the brain go through mental workouts, they’re likely to work well together when the time comes.  

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