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Critical Thoughts About Critical Thinking

Posted by Russell, Lauretta at Friday, 12/07/2012 9:23 pm
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Critical Thoughts About Critical Thinking

Successful executives are often described as having critical thinking. Most people tend to agree with that observation, and consequently, critical thinking is included in both job descriptions and resumés in the hopes that it will ensure a positive outcome. Improvements in critical thinking headline the objectives of many executive training programs. Clearly, it is universally applauded and sought after, but what, exactly, is it, and more importantly, is there a practical means of assessing it. If critical thinking could be more specifically defined and measured, it could be more effectively directed and applied to greater purpose in the business world.

There are countless definitions of critical thinking, and these vary according to the context of the writer. The objective of this paper is not to parse the elements of any of these definitions, but to present a straightforward approach for evaluating the critical thinking within an organization in way that affords the opportunity for positively affecting the overall performance of that organization. As a starting point:

Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Figure A shows a model that will unbundle and sort these elements into understandable categories. This will lead to identifying some “handles” on the concept of critical thinking that in turn, lead to some practical and actionable steps.

Figure A:

An individual’s Attitude, influenced by a mix of their values, ethics, and motivation, clearly affects their critical thinking on any particular subject.

Are the values of the issue consistent with their values?
Do they view potential actions as being ethical?
Are they positively motivated toward a goal?
Are they negatively motivated to avoid a loss?

These and other questions play a role in how an individual considers a subject.

Second comes the influence of Experience, plus education, skills and knowledge.

Are they new to their role?
What is the extent of their knowledge about the issue?
What is the extent of their knowledge surrounding the issue?
What skills, such as negotiating or debate, would be needed to voice their opinions?

All of these are elastic. The skills can be enhanced or developed through training. Knowledge can be shared. Experience will be acquired over time.
It is the third circle that offers the opportunity to transform the promise of critical thinking from a concept into an operational reality. As measured with today’s psychometrics, cognitive abilities and personality traits are stable characteristics. They do not appreciably change with training, coaching or incentives. Therefore, the DATA describing them offer a sound foundation for understanding exactly what critical thinking is possible with an individual’s particular traits and abilities. Just as a 7 foot tall basketball player offers different playing possibilities than a 6 foot tall basketball player, executives with different sets of traits and abilities offer different ways of delivering critical thinking.

Cognitive Abilities

The most salient feature of cognitive ability is that of speed of processing information. To put it simply, individuals who process faster have more information with which to apply their critical thinking. In a world of infinite time, this would not be an issue. All people can effectively learn any amount of information given sufficient time. In the real world, there is limited time. There is fragmented time with fragmented information. Faster processors are more effective in those situations.

A secondary function of processing speed is that it defines the best operational focus of an individual. A camera lens offers different depths of field, depending upon what type of lens it is. A zoom lens focuses beautifully on objects that are far away, but the closer foreground is blurry. A macro or close up lens focuses clearly on closer objects, yet blurs the objects that are further away. No single lens can focus clearly on everything. Similarly, faster processors can project the future outcomes of current actions and offer a strategic vision of where to go, yet these same people have difficulty focusing on the immediate situation and short term issues with the same clarity. Slower processors see these clearly and often bring a welcomed pragmatism to present problem solving, but they struggle with longer term questions. The desired focus of critical thinking then becomes key to matching the talent to the task.

The third critical thinking capability that is dependent upon processing speed is the analysis of complex relationships among various events, circumstances and strategies. Faster processors have a definite advantage that becomes even greater as the complexity of factors increases.

Personality Traits

Cognitive abilities indicate an individual’s capability for critical thinking for different applications and circumstances. Personality traits indicate how or if the results of critical thinking will be delivered.

The most powerful determining trait is that of assertiveness. Under normal conditions, an individual will not offer opinions or feedback that may be judged to be challenging or opposing to anyone who is more assertive than they are. The alternative choice is usually silence, which is interpreted as non-participation or tacit assent. Even when the individual perceives a “better” solution or when they detect flaws in the prevalent idea or plan, non-assertive individuals will not speak out. It is quite easy however, when this is known, to acquire their thinking and benefit from it.

The next most common factor affecting critical thinking is the need for details. Some people focus on the big picture, needing few details to form their opinions. Others need to have a complete picture, including all the details, before they begin to form any conclusions or opinions.

People who are open to new experiences tend to approach any new ideas with an open mind, looking for ways to apply the new ideas to what they are doing now. People whose world is built on processes and consistency, tend to defend the status quo, making them automatically opposed to any new concepts or ideas. Each of these personality extremes brings a different sort of critical thinking to any discussion.

Critical thinking depends to some extent on a balance of questioning what is right with an idea and of questioning what is wrong with it. There are people who approach every idea or opinion with a positive acceptance, while others begin by seeking out what is wrong. These extremes shape the direction of one’s critical thinking.

In summary, critical thinking can be a powerful asset within a company. It is an asset whose potential can only be realized through DATA that maps the critical thinking contributions of each member of the team. With that DATA, the talent of the team can be unleashed and focused as never before.

If you would like to know more please consider attending our webinar next Thursday, December 13th at 1PM Eastern Time or email Lauretta directly.

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