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How Smart Can You Get? Developing Critical Thinking Skills at Work

by vantageleadership on

It’s no secret that critical thinking is important to success in the workplace today, but after presenting at the 2019 APA convention on the role of critical thinking, what impacts it, and whether or not it can be developed, we had a number of takeaways that add a little more nuance to the conversation. Here are a few to keep in mind when considering critical thinking and the role it plays in workplace success.

Critical Thinking Is Important; It’s Not Everything

Although critical thinking scores are strongly predictive of job performance across domains, they are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding a person’s capabilities. Critical thinking measures should be combined with multiple other assessment components, such as personality measures and structured interviews, to put those scores in perspective.

Further, critical thinking scores may be more or less relevant depending on the job-specific context. For higher-level positions, scores on critical thinking measures are more relevant compared to roles that are more hands-on and less strategic. Thus, the importance of critical thinking scores should be weighted differently depending on the job, as well as considered as one data point in a larger set.

The EQ/IQ Sweet Spot

High scores on critical thinking measures alone can only get a person so far. In fact, if not balanced with emotional intelligence (EQ), they might not get you that far at all when it comes to leadership.

Years ago, we had a client who made high critical thinking scores the focal criteria for numerous high-level positions. The individuals they hired were very intelligent from a cognitive standpoint, but were missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: EQ. Their subordinates hated working for them, coworkers hated working with them, and they were not high performers in their new roles.

Going forward, we helped our client select leaders who had a healthy combination of interpersonal skills and cognitive intelligence. Those individuals were more likely to exhibit exceptional leadership performance and be seen as high potentials than those who were only smart from a cognitive perspective.

The moral of the story: there is a sweet spot where the two skillsets of EQ and IQ intersect, and considering IQ in a vacuum is not going to lead to success and optimal performance. Instead, the two must be considered in tandem.

Fostering Critical Thinking Through a Carefully Curated Culture

Critical thinking can be assessed and selected for, but it can also be dampened by the environment. If your employees aren’t encouraged to reason things out for themselves and, instead, defer to their bosses on every decision, this will hinder their ability to think critically. While it may be tempting to hire “yes men,” evidence suggests this doesn’t make for organizational success. If subordinates always agree with their bosses, there won’t be new ideas coming into the organization, which will result in a lack of innovation and lower critical thinking because individuals won’t be challenged to question their beliefs, assumptions, and ideas.  Employees who are not given the opportunity to make their own decisions will also have a difficult time ascending through the organization. Leadership at the top requires the ability to set direction and think for oneself, and if employees can’t demonstrate this skill, it will be hard to spot those that have it.

Ultimately, organizations that enforce a “do this because I said so” culture are not setting themselves or their employees up for success, and not reaping the benefits of critical thinkers.

The Danger of Deference

When individuals see someone or something as an intelligent authority (e.g., teacher, boss, news outlet), they will often defer to whatever that person or thing says about a situation instead of trying to reason through it themselves. This tendency actively opposes critical thinking, as it means individuals are taking a situation at face value and not attempting to make sense of it on their own. Strong deference to authority makes a person less likely to think critically because they will simply defer to what their boss says. Further, when people are overly concerned about getting to the “right” answer, this stifles exploratory critical thinking.

Certain individuals are more likely to show these tendencies than others. Be aware of employees that may be deferential to the point of stifling their own critical thinking skills, and encourage them to appropriately challenge authority, think outside the box, and not focus  intensely on getting things “right.”

Developing Critical Thinking

Critical thinking can be developed through (1) metacognitive training, (2) encouraging individuals to respectfully question authority and building learning cultures, and (3) building critical thinking into early education. Although there is not much that can be done at an organizational level for building critical thinking into early education, organizations do have opportunities to take action on the first two suggestions.

Metacognitive training involves helping individuals develop skills that increase their awareness and comprehension of the way that they think. One method for doing this involves providing individuals with information on the 5-factor model of metacognition that the Watson-Glaser (one of the foremost tools for assessing deductive reasoning) is based on: inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. In an organization, this could take the form of employee seminars on the topic or even basic training to help employees break down the general components of critical thinking and learn a couple of metacognitive strategies (e.g., planning how to approach a task, evaluating progress toward task completion) that they could incorporate into their lives for daily use.

Further, ensuring that your organization is actively promoting a culture of critical thinking is essential. Employees should feel emboldened to respectfully chal

lenge each other’s beliefs and assumptions, as well as the beliefs and assumptions of their bosses. When an issue is on the table, there should be brainstorming sessions where it is emphasized that there is no right answer and everyone’s thoughts and input are valued. Finally, organizations should support their employees in their learning and expect them to ask questions and dig deep into issues, avoiding taking things at face value.

The Polymathy Advantage

During our presentations, we had researchers in our audience who study polymathy and polymaths, and this led to an interesting discussion about the relationships between polymaths, critical thinkers, and exceptional leaders.  A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects and is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. One aspect of critical thinking is having a certain level of domain knowledge to draw from to be able to consider an issue from different angles, so one could make the inferential leap that polymaths are good critical thinkers.

This led to some interesting parallels to leadership development.  Some of the best executives have broad-ranging experiences across multiple functions, essentially giving them knowledge that is both broad and deep. This raised the question: are effective executives polymaths?

This could be a direction for future research, but it does seem likely that individuals who have knowledge that spans many areas are going to be better at leading, especially in organizations with multiple complex functions. In fact, role rotation, in which individuals gain experience by rotating between different jobs in the same organization, is an increasingly common way for organizations to develop emerging leaders and bears similarity to the concept of polymathy. Employees who go through this process develop a deeper understanding of the organization’s operations after gaining a broader view that includes roles outside their own.

Concluding Thoughts

The benefits of solid critical thinking skills are many and undeniable. Although critical thinking scores are not the “be all, end all” and other factors, such as EQ, should be taken into consideration when making decisions for selection, organizations should strive to do what they can to  develop these skills in their employees to help maximize their potential and their contributions to the organization. If your organization has the resources to conduct seminars to help employees improve their metacognitive skills, that’s great! However, every organization (regardless of resources) has the opportunity to cultivate a culture of critical thinking where employees from the bottom up feel comfortable and encouraged to respectfully speak their minds and challenge each other’s beliefs to help bring fresh, new thinking into the organization.

How do you help your direct reports sharpen their critical thinking skills? What have you found to be successful in making sure your team doesn’t become overly deferential? Tell us in the comments below!

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