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Critical thinkers are critical to your success

There is good news: Critical thinking can be taught.

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Critical thinking — and critical thinkers—are the key to moving a business forward. And whether it’s a family-owned business looking for the next generation of leaders or a public company looking to outpace the competition, finding and developing the critical thinkers within your organization is critical to success.

Most CEOs and other leaders already have this trait; it’s part of what got them to where they are. Critical thinkers, however, aren’t always easy to find. According to the 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report by PayScale, critical thinking was the No. 1 soft skill that managers feel new graduates are lacking. The reasons why so many people lack this skill is unclear, but there is good news: Critical thinking can be taught.

The key is identifying people within your organization who have the ability to learn it. Although it’s always a good idea to look for critical thinkers when hiring (behavioral and situational questions during an interview are a good way to identify critical thinkers), you most likely have some really great employees and managers who might not yet be critical thinkers but are essential to the business. These are the people you want to invest in. 


Identifying potential

Critical thinking can be taught, but not everyone is capable of learning it. Identifying the people in your organization who are most likely to evolve into critical thinkers is the first step. There are generally three types of people in your organization when it comes to critical thinking: those who already have critical thinking skills, those who display the aptitude to learn but are not currently critical thinkers and those who lack the skill, ability or will to learn it at all. The people in the middle are the ones you want to put your energy and resources into. So how do you determine which people in your organization fall into that middle category? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review details a few simple performance markers you can use to assess the right candidates:

  • Execution: When you give an employee an assignment, do they complete the assignment in full, without any direction? Do they complete the assignment on time and without issue? And finally, do they complete it in a manner that is up to company standards? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, you have a good candidate for learning critical thinking. An individual who can complete a task on time and without help has most likely employed some level of critical thinking while doing their tasks, whether they realize it or not. They have shown an ability to take minimal direction and produce maximum results. Although their critical thinking skills might not be refined yet, there is something to build on. 
  • Meetings: How an individual synthesizes the information shared at a meeting can be a great indicator of their ability to learn new ways of thinking. Those who can easily ascertain the most important details of a given meeting and quickly organize and prioritize actions based on insights shared are likely to be great candidates to learn critical thinking. 
  • Recommendations: Individuals who take a consultative rather than reactionary approach to their job demonstrate the ability to think beyond direction and execution. They are, in essence, demonstrating critical thinking simply by making recommendations in the first place. You might not be able to tell the depth of their critical thinking skills based on a recommendation alone, but you know the wheels are turning. 
  • Generation: Can the individuals in your organization generate ideas and strategies from nothing? Ask your employees to develop ideas on how to improve something in your organization, or purpose an entirely new strategy for growth. Those individuals who can come up with cogent, actionable plans are likely adept at critical thinking already. 

By observing individuals using these four basic benchmarks, you should be able to identify those employees and managers who would respond well to critical thinking training. The next step is training them. There are various psychological models that can be used to train people how to think critically. The Foundation for Critical Thinking is a good place to start. But teaching critical thinking essentially boils down to basic behavioral psychology. With the right incentives and timely reinforcement, critical thinking is a behavior that can be learned like any other behavior. If you’re willing to put the time and effort in to develop critical thinking in your managers and employees, you’ll be rewarded with a more well-rounded team and a more successful business. 



Denise Federer

Denise Federer is a contributing columnist to the Business Observer. She is the founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group with more than 30 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at [email protected].


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