Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Crash Course in Critical Thinking
For anyone who thinks he’s in control or who likes to be in control, I’ve got bad news for you. Scientists believe to have shown that the brain runs largely on autopilot. Whether you like to hear this or not, if this is true, your brain acts first and asks questions later (if at all), often explaining behavior after the fact. I don’t like this, but I recognize it. I see it in the workplace and I see it in my own life. I don’t think this mechanism serves us well. It encourages the deadly sin of avoiding accountability, assigning blame to someone or something, and deceiving yourself into thinking that you are right. It keeps biases, misconceptions and self-deception untouched. Not a good thing.
Whether you and I believe the notion of a brain on autopilot or not, I still believe in the necessity and the power of critical thinking. Here’s why.
Think of your average workplace conversation or meeting. Have you ever witnessed people leave even more convinced of their own ideas than before the meeting? Have you ever been in a conversation that lasted and lasted, with few questions asked and those that were asked were the wrong kind of questions. Have you ever seen two people talk, thinking that they understood each other, thinking that they agreed on one and the same thing only to see them leave with two different interpretations of the main problem and of what to do next?
These situations are no exaggerations nor are they exceptions. They happen, and they are detrimental to quality thinking processes, quality discussions, and quality decision-making. They make the workplace more tense, inefficient, and ineffective, because they lack critical thinking. Not a good thing.
In it’s course Critical Thinking, the University of Hong Kong describes critical thinking as the ability to think clearly and rationally. This requires reflective and independent thinking. Reflective thinking happens when you scrutinize your own (or someone else’s) assumptions, thought patterns, and behaviors, as well as your fears, needs, distortions and biases. Independent thinking refers to thinking that is minimally affected by peer group pressure, social media, common belief, parental influence, or any other force from outside.
Not an easy task, even though most people who read this post may think that they’re just that: reflective, independent thinkers. Well, you’re likely not, or at least less than you think you are.
Particularly two aspects of critical thinking as defined at the University of Hong Kong attract my attention because I think most of us fail to do so:
1. Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in our reasoning.
2. Reflect on the justification of our beliefs and values.
Critical thinking is mostly about evaluating your own thoughts, examining possible flaws, and detecting biases in your own approach. When was the last time you really practiced this? And how differently would your conflict with another manager, the tension during the performance review conversation, or the decision making during that team meeting have transpired?
How often do you consciously refute your cherished beliefs? How curious are you really? When was the last time you were eager to widen your perspective in a conflict with a co-worker? How easily do you doubt yourself and suspend your judgment about that one manager that everybody is gossiping about? I’m guessing not so often, not so much. It’s more likely that you’ve jumped to premature conclusions, that you’ve accepted your own assumptions blindly, and that you are only remotely (if at all) familiar with the practice of carefully and critically examining your preconceived notions.
So what to do now? Examples of questions that help you think critically in different stages of your thought process:
- Have I consulted a variety of sources?
- Do I have enough perspectives?
- Are my assumptions valid? If so, why? If not, why not?
- What are they even based on?
- What am I not willing to see/look at?
- Which preconceived notions should I re-examine?
- Do I need to gather or investigate more facts and data?
- What do I need to do in order to remain alert and open-minded while implementing my ideas?
The above questions are one necessary step in many to become a mindful, reflective, critical thinker. Continually questioning how you are searching, choosing, interpreting, and judging information is essential to critical thinking and can help minimize group think and intolerance. It makes you a smarter thinker, employee, leader, and team member. It makes the world a better place, including the workplace!
So may I remind you to go hunt for inconsistencies and mistakes in your reasoning and to reflect on the justification of your beliefs?