Do you actively use critical thinking? This is a key skill for business leaders and you have the opportunity to practice this skill on a daily basis. Every day the the news is filled with hot topics being openly debated. All sides of every conceivable issue are promoting their viewpoint. Most of us use our own personal values and perspectives as we sift through the information and decide what we want to support.
We do this knowingly. We are aware of the different views and we make a choice as to where we stand. Sometimes we research the topic, sometimes we are directed by our own past experiences, and sometimes we are just repeating what we’ve heard from someone we respect. Many times, we become unmoving once we’ve made our decision and will then block out (at least mentally) any information that opposes our views.
For those of us living in a democratic type societies, it is our right to do that. But internal businesses practices don’t follow those same rules. Businesses are looking for people who can bring objectivity to the decision-making process. They don’t want to know what our personal values and emotions are about the topic. They want to know what is best for the business. This means setting aside our own personal thoughts and feelings.
At the same time, it is important to stay true to your own moral compass. If you are being required to do things that contradict your core values, or that blur or cross ethical and legal boundaries, then you need to find another place to work. I am not talking about having to follow a dress code or change your approach to completing a task, I am talking about things that may bring harm to yourself or others. You need to know where the lines of your personal integrity are and follow those in the rare occurrence when this becomes an issue.
“Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny – and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).” Stephen Jay Gould
Generally speaking, businesses want objectivity in decision making – frequently refer to as critical thinking skills. So, what exactly does that mean?
Critical thinking is the ability to objectively analyze different viewpoints in order to reach a decision. It is an approach to decision making process that demonstrates careful thought and reasoning. Let’s take a closer look at the key elements of critical thinking.
This means putting aside your personal thoughts and beliefs in order to open yourself up to learning about different perspectives and different courses of action. When you are being objective, you are focusing on the facts – all the facts, not just the ones that align with your own views. Being objective means that you are looking at all sides of the issue in a manner that is as equal and fair as possible.
Objectivity is something to strive for. As humans we are always subjective. Our thoughts are guided by our previous experiences and knowledge. You must be aware of your subjectivity and actively seek to be as impartial as you can.
This means you must check your sources. You need to know that your information is accurate and can be proven by multiple independent sources. The information you are gathering and using must be credible or your thinking will be in vain. That means you need to review sources as objectively as you can, making sure you are bringing in all the facts from all the different perspectives.
This means you take the time to examine the pros and cons of each view or scenario. You sketch out the actions and consequences of each option. Along with the possible results, you identify the resources needed to implement each option. Objectivity comes into play again during your analysis. You need to be impartial in your review of the information and its potential impacts.
Based on your objective, factual analysis of the situation, you need to come to a preliminary decision. It is best if you can rank your decision choices into your top three courses of action. This allows you to have a Plan B and Plan C already determined in case something happens to your Plan A. The ability to pivot with preparedness shows that you truly understand the situation.
The Human Element
While the process of critical thinking does its best to remove the subjectivity of people, any great leader will tell you that the human element needs to be reviewed before the final decision is made. Critical thinking opens you up to the best decision on paper. But decisions effect people and have to be implemented by people. You are not striving to make everyone happy, but you need to consider any negative effects the decision could have on the workforce.
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Albert Einstein
Does the decision align with company values? Is the decision contrary to company culture? Will you be able to explain the decision and gain employee support for it?
Sometimes what seems like the best decision on paper can be harmful to the company if it will cause significant hardship to those in the company. This is where you have to balance achieving your bottom line with doing the right thing.
Putting It All Together
Critical thinking is a vital business skill. But within the context of leadership it is only part of the formula. Leaders must be able to think critically while still considering other factors such as fiscal impact, employee impact, customer impact, environmental impact, political impact, and any other impacts that may be relevant for their specific situation.
Critical thinking is not something that can be done on the spot. It is a decision-making process that takes time and effort. Rush judgments, personal opinions, and being a “yes-person” have no place in critical thinking. To be a critical thinker you must immerse yourself into the situation, take a 360-degree view from various altitudes, and then design a plan to move forward.
Be careful not to become lost in the process. In the quest for information and analysis some people will continuously put off making a decision. Leaders need to determine when they have enough information and by when a decision need to be reached. You have to know when it is better to decide to act upon what is known while remaining flexible to adjusting if new information becomes available, and when to hold off on a decision until more data comes in. Great leaders rely upon their experience and their intuition to know the difference.
Revised July 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in January 2020.