How to teach your team critical thinking skills

By Anne Collier, above, MPP, JD, CEO of Arudia and KAI Practitioner

In 2020, the World Economic Forum published a report on the Future of Jobs, where it stated, ‘by 2025 critical (analytical) thinking, creativity, and flexibility will be among the most sought-after skills by employers.’ In today’s tough economic climate where cost, time, and performance demands pressure businesses, the World Economic Forum’s prediction couldn’t have been more on point.

Leaders are looking for employees capable of assimilating and discerning the relevant from the vast amount of information that comes across their desks on a daily basis, analyse problems and make clear, concise recommendations that provide the best value and solutions. However, over the last decade or so, the somewhat quiet concerns and complaints about the lack of critical thinking skills have become louder. Business Leaders are increasingly aware that hiring employees that can independently provide solutions that provide value is becoming harder. Unfortunately, it feels like mediocrity is prevailing and as such opportunities are lost, leading to frustration and concern. Decisions are pushed up, not down, and that costs time and energy. These dysfunctions limit what businesses can successfully accomplish.

If critical thinking skills truly are in short supply, why?

Some point to shifts in education, where its thought a mindset exists of “teaching to the test”. Others point to a fear of failure that leads nowhere, meaning that creativity, experimentation, and curiosity have been replaced by the need to get it right on the first go around.  Employees are paralysed if they do not immediately know the answer. In addition, today’s business pressures can result in cultures that fail to encourage the intellectual curiosity and the experimentation required to figure out a problem. Thus, the environment necessary to nurture critical thinking skills is often lacking.

Why don’t some employees seek out or employ even minimal critical thinking skills to solve problems? Critical thinking demands that a person be fully present, it takes initiative, focus, and engagement, which the person must self-generate. The person has to want to think critically, do the work, and devote the energy to it. The person must be curious and open-minded. The person must want to wrestle with a problem and win.  It also involves the risk that the person will not solve the problem after devoting the necessary time and energy to trying to solve it. It is easier to ignore the real challenge and focus instead on something easier to resolve.

Now that we’ve dabbled in what critical thinking takes, what exactly are critical thinking skills? A brief review of the literature on critical thinking skills reveals an entire discourse on the components of critical thinking and the corresponding skills. To very briefly summarise and most assuredly simplify, critical thinking is the purposeful thinking in which the person systematically imposes criteria and intellectual standards upon the thinking. The person takes charge of the construction of thinking, meaning that the person is conscious of and objectively examines such things as assumptions, perspective, and bias. The person guides the construction and effectiveness of thinking according to standards, assessing, adjusting, adapting and improving the criteria and standards throughout the process. The skills necessary to think critically include the ability to distinguish, analyse, judge, and detect bias, to name a few.

How to Improve Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills, immediately 

Leaders, under pressure to improve results, look to improve their team members’ critical thinking skills now. Dr. Michal J. Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Theory and the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (the “KAI”) are, in my view, hands down, the best means of expeditiously teaching and improving critical thinking skills. The theory provides a framework for understanding different creativity styles, which can immediately improve a person’s critical thinking prowess. How? Because by thinking about thinking (creativity styles) requires to a person to trade reactivity (my idea is best, or fear-based “nothing will work”) or paralysis (I can’t make a mistake) for curiosity about the problem and different approaches to solving the problem.

Adaption-Innovation Theory posits that a person’s problem-solving or creativity style falls on a roughly 100-point continuum of more to less structured.  While this may sound like a simple construct, there are rich implications for solving problems, leadership, and team dynamics abound. People who understand their own problem-solving style and that of colleagues, can immediately recognise that different approaches to solving a problem exist. A person who recognises that certain problems lend themselves to certain approaches, will seek out a particular colleague’s help. Even thinking about how to minimise the friction that can come from working with people who think differently is critical thinking. This is all critical thinking.

Thus, leaders who wish to improve the team’s capacity to solve problems in short order, the leader can introduce team members to problem-solving style by having them take the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (“KAI”). The KAI assesses where a person falls on the Adaption-Innovation Continuum and is so named using terms with links to psychology. The word “adaptive” indicating an approach which is first accepting the environment and using it to develop a creative solution; and “innovative” indicating an approach which may seek to alter the environment first to develop a creative solution.  People have a preference to be more adaptive, or more innovative to varying degrees, with no better preference.

To both train critical thinking and exploit cognitive diversity to its fullest, leaders and team members alike can use coaching skills. Coaching is a form of dialogue based on the asking and answering of typically open-ended questions to draw out ideas and reveal underlying assumptions, which stimulates critical thinking. A full coaching conversation follows a problem-solving model in which deliberate open-ended questions are asked to clarify the problem and the goal, “brainstorm” options, create an action plan, identify resource needs and obstacles, commit to next steps and develop mechanisms for accountability. The Socratic Method, employed in law schools worldwide and most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, is similar but employs a more argumentative flair in the questions and answers that participants must adopt in a cooperative way. Either practice serves to hone employees’ critical thinking as they seek to resolve the organisation’s problems.

What leaders must remember is that no one learns or masters a skill without practice, thus making active use of KAI, coaching, or the Socratic Method essential tools for daily improvement of critical thinking skills and business outcomes.

In analysing your own culture, what conclusions do you draw about whether your culture supports critical thinking?  If it doesn’t, which tools will work best to evolve your culture into a one in which high-level critical thinking prevails?

Anne Collier, MPP, JD, is the founder Arudia, a leadership training consultancy based in the U.S. An expert leadership coach, Anne is a specialist in helping organisations improve their leadership, management, culture, collaboration, and communication