How to Encourage Critical Thinking in the Workplace

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Critical thinking is a popular buzzword on resumes and in job descriptions. Managers want employees who can make their own decisions or take information and process it strategically.

Despite the demand for critical thinking, several hiring managers believe it’s lacking in the current workforce. However, critical thinking isn’t necessarily a skill that modern employees lack, but rather a skill they seldom use.

Here are a few reasons why critical thinking is forgotten in the workplace — and how managers can help bring it back.

Toxic Work Environments Limit Critical Thinking

Bad work environments stifle critical thinking by demotivating employees. Why should your team members try to come up with creative solutions when they’re just going be to shot down or told to follow previous procedures?

As a manager, you could be actively discouraging your team members from stretching their critical thinking skills without even knowing it. Below are a few signs that you’re creating an environment that’s hostile toward strategic problem-solving.  

You’re Too Busy

When employees are pressured to constantly reach their next deadlines or quotas without any breaks or time for reflection, they tend to carve out the most comfortable paths to those goals. And the path of least resistance seldom leads to innovation or company growth. 

"Everyone is incredibly busy, and often we believe that we don't have the time to really think through an issue," Jen Lawrence tells Business News Daily. However, jumping to conclusions leads to uninformed decisions, which can turn into poor time investments, temporary solutions, and mistakes when your team doesn’t fully understand what the problem is.

You’re Set In Your Ways

Some of us get so comfortable with our current ways of doing things that we don’t want to change how things are done. However, more companies are investing in strategic thinking processes to encourage employees to thoroughly work through a problem and critically understand the issue at hand. 

“Thinking strategically is not an unrealistic expectation; neither is it a mind boggling process or age dependent,” Mary Lippitt writes at the Association for Talent Development. “What really limits strategic perspective is a reliance on habit, past practice, and limited expectations.”

Employees who can’t think creatively or challenge the status quo will stop innovating. This will stagnate an organization’s growth and create a toxic work environment. Over time, top employees will inevitably leave to work someplace where their creativity is rewarded.

You Assume the Worst

Matthew Estes at Mars Gone Mad writes that some managers have a habit of assuming the worst possible outcome of any new situation. Any time a new employee wants to try a new method, explore a new channel or solve a problem differently, the management team is so nervous about failing that they reject the plan outright.

Thinking out potential negative outcomes isn’t bad as long as managers also think about the best possible outcomes. This helps them identify risk factors but also decide whether the risk is worth it.

“It helps to have a structured approach to think through the possibility of a bad outcome from the decisions you make,” Bruna Martinuzzi writes. “Success isn't about avoiding risks; rather, it's about knowing how to mitigate potential risks.”

When employers take time to evaluate a situation instead of jumping to conclusions, they can make better decisions in the workplace. This also creates a healthier work environment for the people around you.  

You’re Too Focused on Your Own Department

Managers often meet to discuss company changes and review how potential plans will affect their departments. They’re called to the meeting to be a voice for their departments and aren’t typically expected to solve the problems of others. While their expertise is beneficial to the company, it can also be limiting if a group of managers or VPs can’t see beyond their own goals.

Carey-Ann Oestreicher encourages leaders to approach meetings with the goal of helping the company as a whole and working with other managers to grow their departments. This can help you grow allies in the company and increase your support system — as opposed to approaching multi-departmental meetings with an “us-versus-them” mentality.

In fact, managers can take this concept of multi-departmental collaboration a step further by introducing more diversity in project work groups and discussions. Sarah Neal at CatMedia writes that employees with different professional backgrounds can bring unique solutions to the table and see situations differently.

When you put a diverse group of people in a room together, they approach problems from different ways. This leads to different problem-solving methods and, in most cases, more creative solutions.

How Managers Can Become Critical Thinkers

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It’s never too late to build your critical thinking skills. Here are a few steps managers can take to do just that, and then pass those skills on to their teams.

Thoroughly Evaluate New Situations

Misinformation and assumptions can limit critical thinking and lead to terrible decisions.

“When people face a problem, they tend to jump into solution mode too rapidly, and very often that means that they don’t really understand, necessarily, the problem they’re trying to solve,” Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg writes at the Harvard Business Review.

In many ways, office environments have become so focused on solutions that managers aren’t getting all the information they need to come up with the best answers.

To prevent this, Chris Ruisi provides four questions that every manager should start a discussion with when they’re trying to better understand a new situation:

  • What happened?
  • When did it occur?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?   

Unless you have answers to all four of these questions, you’re not prepared to fully make a decision. Missing information could lead to incorrect assumptions or solutions that cause more problems than you initially thought.

Look at the Problem From Different Angles

Another roadblock preventing managers from thinking critically is when they have a limited perspective of the problem. As a solution, Tawny Lees offers the Zoom In/Zoom Out method developed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter to better address problems. Zooming in means taking a deeper look at the problem, while zooming out means taking a higher-level view and not getting caught up in details.

“Each should be vantage points, not fixed positions,” Lees writes. “Effective leaders both zoom in and zoom out for a complete picture.”

Reflect on Your Emotions Before You Act

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The workplace can be a highly emotional place, and even logical managers can slip up and take action based on their emotions.

“Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion?” the experts at the Foundation for Critical Thinking write in a useful guide for better problem-solving and critical evaluation.

If you are angry, are you angry because of the actual problem or how it was hidden from you? Highlighting why you feel a certain way and factors that make you react emotionally can help you sort out a problem and come with logical solutions.

Focus On the Best Possible Outcomes

Critical thinking fails when managers are so focused on maintaining the status quo that they can’t work toward growth or improvement. John Hillen challenges leaders to focus on the best possible project outcome or company situation and work to achieve it.

“Most great strategies are pulled forward by a vision of an alternative future, not a same-future that is rationalized by the known data about the present,” Hillen writes. “When I lead strategic planning exercises I ... always start with the very different organization we want to be in the future. And then we start thinking about how to get there from here.”

Understand the Effects of Easy Solutions

One of the main reasons for bad policies or complex processes within a company is a lack of critical thinking about the solutions. For example, one employee might abuse a work-from-home policy, leading a manager to propose an easy solution: Ban working from home altogether.

“Policies are important to have in place to communicate expectations and ensure a safe, nondiscriminatory workplace,” the staff at DecisionHR writes. “But, policies should be made for the entire team, not for a few rule breakers.”

Choosing the easiest possible solution might cause frustration for employees or create confusing and cumbersome processes that annoy everyone in the office. Critical thinking helps managers come up with plans that solve problems without creating overbroad rules.  

How Managers Can Grow Their Employees’ Critical Thinking Skills

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Along with improving their own critical thinking skills, managers can work to foster an environment that encourages creative problem solving and improvement. This creates a healthy workplace where employees can constantly work to improve the way things are done.

Invite Questions and Open Discussions

Newer employees, lower-level employees, and younger employees often struggle to make their opinions heard within their companies. They either don’t speak up because of their lower positions or aren’t able to speak with senior managers. By giving workers at all levels opportunities to speak up, critical thinking skills are less likely to get stifled. 

“Some employers may not appreciate new hires questioning their long-established business practices, but I would argue that hiring people who ask questions and want to understand the reasons behind decisions and business processes are vital for any company,” Patrick Maggitti writes at US News.

A new intern might not know much about the job or industry, but the questions they ask and ideas they come up with could offer a much-needed perspective change in the company.

Work On A Different Critical Thinking Element at a Time

Dr. Mike Dash of Macat explains that critical thinking actually covers six key skills. While some managers struggle to define critical thinking and find opportunities to incorporate it into the workplace, these skills are commonly used throughout the day:

  • Problem-solving

  • Analysis

  • Creative thinking

  • Interpretation

  • Evaluation

  • Reasoning

Instead of managers asking employees to be better critical thinkers, they might focus on one of these six skills at a time in order to grow critical thinking skills as a whole.

Encourage Employees to Think Differently

Amy Elisa Jackson created a guide that decodes boss-speak, but it can also be used by managers to start internal discussions. For example, the phrase “I like how you’re thinking,” can be used as an opener for employees who are struggling to solve a problem.

As a manager, you might add more information to the situation which might change their conclusions, or challenge the employee to solve the problem a different way. The goal is to encourage their proactive problem solving and make your employees better at it with practice.

Many of your employees likely have strong critical thinking skills, and you can control whether they actually use them. By fostering an environment for discussions are creative problem solving, your team members can work to grow the company in the most effective ways possible.

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