Critical Thinking Pocket Insight

Freya Owen

Freya Owen

Senior Research Consultant

Critical Thinking is the ability to analyse information and form a reasoned judgement in a way that is logical and cognisant of assumptions and biases. In the increasingly complex workplace of today, with information in abundance, change rapid, and new technologies disrupting how we work, the ability to think critically has never been more important. i  Our 2024 global L&D trends report highlighted critical thinking as a top skill for success in the workplace of the future. ii   In their Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum found that analytical and creative thinking, both closely linked to critical thinking, are the top two in-demand skills for 2024. iii Moreover, Forbes recently listed critical thinking in their top ten in-demand skills for the future workplace. iv  

In this pocket insight, we set out what we mean by critical thinkingwe consider why it is so in demandand we discuss whether or not critical thinking can be trained 

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking dates back over 2,400 years to the first known philosophers. Socrates began the study of philosophy through asking ‘the people’ endless questions. He considered a conversation that ended in everyone realizing how little they knew a success – ‘far better that than to carry on believing you understood something when you didn’t’. v Questioning and being curious is at the core of critical thinking.  

In psychology, critical thinking is defined as a metacognitive process, which means thinking about thinking. Critical thinkers improve the quality of their thinking by analysing, assessing, and logically reconstructing their own and others’ thoughts. In neuroscience, critical thinking is when logic (our pre-frontal cortex and explicit memory system) is brought to bear on our habitual (implicit system), emotional (limbic system), and social inclinations. It occurs when we overcome the default of going with our automatic, unconscious beliefs, or with the group impetus.   

In addition to being a skillset, critical thinking requires mindset capabilities, including:  

Self-awareness: why am I thinking the way I am about this decision or problem? Are my emotions or prior beliefs impacting my ability to make or agree with an argument?  

Growth mindset: am I fearful of being wrong such that I refuse to update my previous position, despite there now being clear evidence to the contrary?  

Social awareness: are the right people in the room for this discussion? Is there diversity of thought? Are social influences impacting the ability of the group to think logically and with appropriate challenge? 

Taken together, critical thinking is the process of being aware of and questioning one’s thinking, updating that thinking where appropriate. It involves considering all available evidence, asking challenging questions, and remaining open-minded. 

Why is Critical Thinking in Demand?

Do you think critically?  Most people would answer yes to this question. Yet half of employers rate their employees’ critical thinking skills as average or below average, vii and according to Harvard Business Review, critical thinking is rated the number one professional skill lacking among new graduates, with 60% of managers feeling this way. viii 

This is important, especially in today’s workplace where:  

  • Increased complexity is requiring critical thinking skills. ix In today’s world of work, the components contributing towards decision-making and problem-solving are vast, and the speed at which things are expected to be done is rapid. With more to consider in a shorter time period, critical thinking skills are vital. A further complexity is that workplaces themselves are by nature more complex; multinational, hybrid and multigenerational. Ultimately, these complexities have skyrocketed the need for, and desirability of, critical thinking skills.  
  • Information overload increases the need to think critically. In a world where knowledge is no longer power due to widespread accessibility of data, facts, and communications, individuals need to think more critically about the information they receive. Is the source credible, does the argument make logically sense, what is the context, and are there swaying influences?  
  • Artificial intelligence is increasing the desirability of critical thinking skills. As the presence and influence of AI increases, the skills necessary for success are changing. Humans must work effectively with AI, for example learning to think critically about the outputs of tools like ChatGPT. In addition, they must also differentiate themselves from artificial intelligences. Top contenders for differentiating human skills in an AI-fuelled workplace include critical, analytical, and creative thinking (as well as “human skills” such as empathy and communication skills).x 

This is important for individuals. Critical thinking skills allow employees to get more things done; critical thinking helps individuals to problem-solve and make decisions, improving their ability to contribute to business results.xi Critical thinking also drives innovation through the open generation of ideas and thorough evaluation of alternatives. There is even some, albeit correlational, studies linking critical thinking capabilities to greater interpersonal, business and financial outcomes xii, and greater life outcomes xiii. 

It is also essential for organisations. 

Critical thinking is linked to optimal problem-solving xv. Issues are commonplace in the world of work thus the ability to identify, analyse, and address problems at speed is key for success. Critical thinkers get to the root of a problem and take the time to evaluate alternative options, ultimately reaching more innovative and effective solutions that may have otherwise been overlooked.  Critical thinking also leads to greater decision-making xvi through the consideration of multiple perspectives and options, and the emphasis placed on reliable information.  Taken together, critical thinking results in greater individual productivity and innovation, improved problem-solving and decision-making, and, ultimately, improved business outcomes. 

Can Critical Thinking be Taught?

Yes! 

At Arcadia, we consider critical thinking through the lenses of mindset and skillset. The former involves challenging beliefs and biases, not being afraid to be wrong, and being curious for other, differing perspectives. The latter includes a set of tools one can use to deploy critical thinking. For both mindset and skillset, there are lessons to learn for individuals, managers, and leaders of organisations.  

Some great Critical Thinking models include:  

1) The ‘RED’ model based on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking test, allows individuals and teams to reach optimal conclusions by following a simple 3-part model: 

  • R ecognise assumptions – includes information gathering and synthesizing 
  • E valuate arguments – sensemaking, analysis and problem-solving 
  • D raw conclusions – strategic and creative-thinking, judgement and decision-making. 

2) The 5 Whys approach, originally developed in the 1930s by Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota, delves deeply into a problem through a process of repetitive questioning. This allows for the identification of the true root cause of a problem, such that effective actions can be taken to minimise or eliminate the risk of reoccurrence:  

  • Define the Problem 
  • Why is it happening?  
  • Why is that?  
  • Why is that? 
  • Why is that? 
  • Why is that?  

3) Considering other perspectives, utilising, for example, the 6 Thinking Hats developed by Edward de Bono.xvii Teams divide themselves into categories in order to focus or redirect thoughts in a way that allows for more productive and focused discussions, ultimately leading to greater problem-solving or decision-making:  

  • Objective: what information is known or needed? 
  • Intuitive: how do we feel; what do we fear, like, and dislike? 
  • Cautious: what are the potential risks, difficulties and problems? 
  • Optimistic: what are the benefits and value opportunities? 
  • Creative: what other, alternative and new possibilities could we explore? 
  • Controlled: how do we organize our thinking process to reach an optimal conclusion? 
The context in which critical thinking is used is important. Critical thinking can be taught in combination with closely related skills such as decision-making and problem-solving. For example, The 5 Why’s are used in the context of problem-solving to find the root cause of a problem, while the 6 thinking hats are a great way of considering multiple perspectives when decision-making.  Crucially, at an organisational level, the ability to think critically will only lead to success if it is coupled with an environment that is encouraging of critical thinking. Such a culture incorporates psychological safety, strong chains of communication (to avoid individuals working in silos and only thinking about local implications), and managers that empower and encourage constructive challenge. A key component of critical thinking is the inclusion of diverse perspectives; at the organisational level, this requires inclusive leadership. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, as the workplace becomes increasingly saturated with information and smart technology, the ability to question, evaluate, and adapt thinking is paramount. It involves questioning what we know and being open to diverse perspectives. From employees to managers and organisational leaders, fostering a culture that champions critical thinking is essential for success. By embracing a curious mindset and equipping employees with critical thinking skills, organisations will see greater problem-solving, more inclusive decision-making and, ultimately, improved business outcomes. 

We’d love to discuss critical thinking with you – what it is, its importance in the workplace, and how we can build critical thinking skills at the individual and organisational level. 

Related Reading

For further reading on Critical Thinking, check out these books: 

  • Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas 
  • Edward de Bono – Six Thinking Hats 
  • Adam Grant – Think Again  
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow 

 

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