What Happened to Critical Thinking?

crit·i·cal think·ing, noun.

Definition: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.

You could argue that no one is completely objective. Confirmation bias is real. It is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. It takes work to think for yourself, especially in the current realities of the information age — where there is a lot of dis-information. The more we learn about how humans function (e.g. what motivates them to act, and the role of fear in our decision-making), the more marketers can use that information to get into the psyche of potential buyers — buyers of merchandise, quick-fix remedies, conspiracy theories, political doctrine, you name it.

As humans, we have built-in systems that get in our way of being objective. Perhaps the most basic is the one around fight or flight — the automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. We are seeing examples of this play out as a result of the recent election process.

The Ego also plays a role in preventing objectivity. Your ego doesn’t want you to expand your mind. It wants you to stay the same. And when you start down the path of learning something new, it knows what buttons to push (what feelings to trigger) to make you back down. It knows what works to get you to stop going down a learning path. The Ego doesn’t like the dissonance of conflicting information. And it will use that voice in your head to convince you that your original thinking is right, and to disregard opposing viewpoints.

There is also a thing humans do where once we’ve declared a belief in something we have a really hard time accepting we are wrong. We dig our heels in and defend our beliefs regardless of the evidence presented on the other side.

That’s how powerful our beliefs are — and why it’s important to question them.

I learned the value of digging in to both sides of an argument when I was on the debate team in high school. In case you are not familiar — we worked in teams of two to make a case for or against a particular topic. You had to know and be able to make a case for both sides of the topic. Making a case involved presenting information to support your argument, as well as to rebut the opposing teams arguments. We spent months researching the topic and gathering sources we could use to support our arguments. Some sources worked for either side — or both. Others were more extreme to one side or another.

Nothing much has changed in that regard. Dig long and hard enough, and you will find a resource that matches your argument. You’ll also find many others that don’t. If your goal is to be objective, you consider them all, not just those that favor & reinforce your current belief.

For added fun, we also tend to hang out with people who think like we do — and our beliefs are reinforced in our interactions with them. Democrats attend events with other democrats. Republicans attend events with other republicans. I attended a John McCain event in 2008 and based on the questions that were asked, I didn’t get the feeling there were a lot of democrats there to learn about the other candidate. You attend church with other people who believe like you do. You even donate to causes that support your beliefs. And the list goes on.

Inherently, nothing is wrong with any of that. Unless, that is, your goal is to think critically.

These days, though, critical thinking seems like it has gone by the wayside. People don’t seem interested in understanding an opposing viewpoint or entertaining the possibility there are other ways to think about an issue. And when you do, you’re made out to be disloyal, unpatriotic, or flawed somehow.

Yet, as a leader, that kind of personal growth — the kind that comes from reflection & an open-mind — is what you need from your team in order to meet new challenges. We’ve all heard this: that doing what you’ve always done will give you what you’ve always got. To get different results, you have to change something. The most important change that needs to happen is within you. Change happens from the inside-out.

And that is where critical thinking comes in to play.

Critical thinkers are curious. They ask questions, aren’t afraid to acknowledge when there is something that they don’t understand, and they seek out information to fill information gaps. They are highly tolerant of (and highly curious about) people who believe differently than they do, wanting to dig in and understand how and why. And they do this in service of knowing their own belief system, as well as to invite others to consider other possibilities.

Critical thinking leaders are:

Readers (or listeners if you prefer your books that way). Reading provides opportunities to learn about your world from someone else’s perspective, whether we’re talking fiction or non-fiction. A friend told me about a fiction book that shifted her thinking about substance abuse. A client referred a nonfiction book to me that helped me re-frame some experiences both personally and professionally.

Bridge-builders. They find the connections between ideas and build bridges between them, rather than put up walls. In leadership, bridge-builder leaders seek to bring different groups & cultures together, connecting them by what they have in common, rather than separating them by the differences. Their curiosity keeps them open to possibilities & new connections.

Listeners. They listen not to rebut or refute, but to learn. In every conversation, there is an opportunity to learn something, whether about the other person or the topic of discussion. Most people listen only as a cover for figuring out what they will say next. The critical thinking leader slows that process down. They listen, then think, then speak — if appropriate.

Observers. Critical thinkers are keen observers of the world around them. They collect data and information using all their senses, paying close attention to small details, and checking their assumptions along the way. They watch, listen, interpret, question, and integrate.

Enhancers. Enhancers practice anticipatory leadership. They anticipate what might happen; they anticipate change; they anticipate the needs of their team. They challenge the status quo and challenge conventional thinking. Team members produce and get results for enhancers because they want to, not because they have to. Enhancers view life as an exciting challenge so it is exciting to be around them. They know they don’t know everything and don’t worry about being perfect or the expert. Instead, they are authentic, sensitive and caring leaders who contribute more to the organization than expected.

A leader with critical thinking skills can understand the logical connections between ideas, identify the relevance and importance of arguments, detect inconsistencies or mistakes in reasoning, and make proper decisions. They can discuss their decision-making process with others in a clear, straightforward way — in a way that inspires trust — and receive questions, challenges & feedback with grace & thoughtfulness. When faced with a crisis, a critical thinking leader slows their roll, resisting the urge to make snap judgments based on feelings alone. Their approach is more integrative — a combination of logic and emotion, and one that considers the situation at hand from many angles and in the broader context of organizational goals and values.

Want to improve your critical thinking ability? Three ways to start.

1. Read sources of information that are outside of your normal habits of thinking. That is, read and seek to understand people who think differently than you. Read to understand, not to refute.

2. Find three or more solutions for every problem. Sometimes the solution to a problem seems obvious to us, so rather than think about other options, we jump to action on our first impulse. Slow your roll and take a little extra time to think through at least three possible courses of action. Then use the other options to “inform” your chosen path. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn from considering other viewpoints.

3. Practice active listening. Notice when you tend to reject what is being said and when it is easier to take it in. Use listening to become more self-aware of your own beliefs and biases.

Maybe what happened to critical thinking is that we just don’t slow down long enough — always in a rush, always running behind, with more information coming at us than we can take in at one time. I’m not convinced that those external circumstances are going to change any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t manage them differently. That said — you have to choose it. You have to decide to be a critical thinker, to be someone who listens & engages to understand other points of view, to be someone who isn’t always ‘right’ and doesn’t have to be.

I believe critical thinking, combined with emotional intelligence, creates a solid foundation for leadership success. One of your primary responsibilities as a leader is to assist others in becoming the best they can be. If you pride yourself on leading by example, that means you go first. When you work on your critical thinking skills, you also create the space for the people on your team to improve their critical thinking skills — by following your lead.

Picture of Susan LaCasse

Susan LaCasse

Susan brings 25 years experience in driving change in a variety of project and leadership roles. Common to these roles were leadership development, process improvement and change management.

Susan is a student of human behavior, constantly seeking the latest in theories and tools. She also understands how organizations work. Together, she uses this combination to help her clients create positive, lasting change. Susan is a unique combination of coach, catalyst and trusted adviser.


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