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Why Companies should care about Critical Thinking

An Interview with Raymond Thomas CEO & MD of The Learning Paradigm

Critical Thinking refers to the ability to identify and analyse problems, seek and evaluate relevant information, in order to reach an appropriate conclusion. Effective critical thinkers make good decisions, the foundational capability that underlies organisational success.

Yet, more often than not, business leaders fall short on this capability. Executive development professionals report that the competency next-generation leaders lack the most is strategic thinking, which hinges on Critical Thinking skills1.

We sit down with Raymond Thomas, CEO & Managing Director of The Learning Paradigm, to discuss why this is the case and what organisations are doing about this.

As a start, what is Critical Thinking and what impact does it have on the business?

Critical Thinking helps organizations to engage in effective and deliberate thinking techniques. As mainstream organisations expect quick and decisive outcomes, most employees are expected to make decisions grounded on sound logic.

But this is hard to do in today’s environment. VUCA is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit but it’s a good characterisation of many business environments. When the context is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, it becomes increasingly challenging to distinguish facts from opinion, relevant from irrelevant information and impartial data from biased data. Good decision making in such contexts require individuals to be sensitive to underlying assumptions, engage in robust reasoning, and draw logical, meaningful conclusions – all key elements of Critical Thinking.

Organisations that have invested in Critical Thinking and critical thinkers, report improvements in employees’ ability to evaluate the information that is presented, conduct good analysis and problem-solving skills and good judgement and decision making skills.

Asians are often type-casted – rightly or wrongly – as being unable to think critically, being more focused on rote learning and rule-abiding, rather than thinking independently. What has been your experience with this?

From an Asian perspective, it is considered rude to question, let alone disagree with authority and hierarchy. The social norm is to seek consensus and harmony with those around us, and to avoid disagreement. There are significant strengths to this but also limitations.

One limitation is that this norm becomes a habit of thinking for people. Subconsciously, it becomes assumed that authoritative sources cannot be questioned, past practices are “safer” and better than untried ones, and the majority view is the right one. When these assumptions become embedded in the way we think, we may adopt the wrong perspective in certain situations, causing us to draw conclusions that are inaccurate or illogical.

At The Learning Paradigm, we conduct a number of Critical Thinking programmes that work on these issues. One of the key aspects of the programme involves arresting the habit of rushing to a conclusion. It starts with making sub-conscious habits of thinking conscious, to build personal awareness. We also create opportunities for intentional practice. Participants experience many circumstances, hypothetical class situations and case study reviews, where jumping to conclusion is a common attribute. It takes constant probing and questioning and the use of Critical Thinking standards by self and peers to arrest the common errors of reasoning.

Can you give an introduction to the work you do on Critical Thinking with organisations?

We have been working with organisations over the last four years to build organisation excellence from within through Critical Thinking training and coaching.

We have three levels of programmes, catering to the needs of employees at different levels. For the Executive Management level, the focus is on creating awareness for the subject and how to coach middle management to weave in a culture of Critical Thinking. This includes exploring best practises and incorporating them into the existing work culture. For the head of departments, the aim is to share strategies on how to apply Critical Thinking at the work place. This includes mentoring staff to be more anticipative, inquisitive and probing in nature, especially when they are faced with work related issues.

There is also a programme aimed at support staff, who are encouraged to analyse issues in depth by applying the Critical Thinking concepts. As most of them are engaged in addressing day-to-day issues, the tools and techniques enable them to develop basic habits in asking effective questions before drawing a conclusion.

Since we started on this area of development, we have been working with a large number of private and social sector companies that are increasingly aware of the impact that Critical Thinking can make in driving organisational success.

To enhance our programmes further, we integrated the Watson-Glaser™ Critical Thinking Appraisal to provide a quantifiable baseline for the participants. We also coach high-potential candidates to prepare themselves for leadership roles within the organization.

What do you say to people who feel that they already are critical thinkers and they don’t need to learn more about this?

Most people who attend our workshops see the importance of Critical Thinking and therefore also believe that they apply Critical Thinking in their daily lives.

REDBut what we’ve found is that most people do not think consciously about how they think. One important part of our programme is to raise people’s awareness of this. The Watson Glaser™ Critical Thinking Appraisal is a great asset to this because it allows my audience to objectively measure their abilities as a critical thinker. Beyond this there is also a strong infusion of real world business problems, puzzles and quizzes that create awareness of our ability to perform as effective critical thinkers.

Can people really make tangible improvements on Critical Thinking ability?

Yes – one important part is raising people’s awareness on how they think which we have already discussed, the other is practicing some new habits or styles of thinking.

One key framework that we talk about is Pearson’s RED Model, which helps participants to Recognise assumptions, Evaluate arguments and Draw conclusions. Tangible improvements can be visible, provided the individual is willing to apply and practise the various Critical Thinking frameworks within the work context. Other methods in experiencing tangible outcomes include working with coaches, on a structured program to develop Critical Thinking skills.

We have seen our programme participants make very concrete improvements in how they think, including the ability to make their reasoning process more visible to themselves and others, formulating thought provoking questions to validate actions and evaluate underlying assumptions.

One thing that people always get wrong about Critical Thinking?

Often, people zoom in on the word “critical” and mistakenly interpret Critical Thinking as making criticisms of others and provoking thinking from a negative, sceptical perspective.

In fact, effective Critical Thinking is nothing like that. Effective Critical Thinking encourages a thoughtfulness in thinking and opens up possibilities rather than shuts them down. We need to see Critical Thinking as a way to nurturing how we think, as an objective, insightful thinking process that inspires, rather than criticises.