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How to Grow Critical Thinking Skills in Your Team

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A Practical Way To Assess & Grow This Key Skill. 

It’s consistently rated as one of the most important soft skills that employees need. But most managers think job candidates don’t have it. Universities don’t know how to teach it. On top of that, few can even agree on how to define it or measure it.

What is it? Critical thinking.

In Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, co-authors Jen Lawrence and Larry Chester defines critical thinking as "the ability to solve problems effectively by systematically gathering information about an issue, generating further ideas involving a variety of perspectives, evaluating the information using logic, and making sure everyone involved is on board."

Given how many abilities and traits are required for successful critical thinking, it’s no wonder that managers and workers alike have trouble identifying or improving upon it.

And yet the value of critical thinking is also clear. Those with robust skills in this area are more likely to question assumptions, draw insights from multiple disciplines, understand different perspectives, and come up with creative solutions. Strong critical thinking has been linked with good decision making and excellent leadership.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review provides a simple approach for understanding and measuring critical thinking. The Critical Thinking Roadmap, developed by coaching firm Zarvana, breaks this soft skill into four chronological phases: the ability to execute, synthesise, recommend, and generate.

The ideal employee, according to this model, should be able to master each of these phases and then be ready to move on to the next one. Matt Plummer, founder of Zarvana, provides practical suggestions for how to develop each skill set.

  1. Execution

Someone who executes well can take instructions and turn them into action that generates results. To build this skill in your team, start them on smaller projects with more immediate deadlines. Ask for updates on their progress along the way.

Plummer recommends three questions to ask to assess if a worker is ready for the next phase:

  • Do they complete all parts of their assignments?
  • Do they complete them on time?
  • Do they complete them at or close to your standard of quality?
  1. Synthesise

Synthesising requires sorting through a range of information to determine what is important. This is a learned skill that can be developed through practice and coaching. Start your employees on synthesising key information from a phone call or meeting, and build up from there.

Plummer recommends these questions to evaluate if an employee has mastered the ability to synthesise:

  • Can they identify all the important insights?
  • Do they exclude all unimportant insights?
  • Do they accurately assess the relative importance of the important insights?
  • Can they communicate the important insights clearly and succinctly?
  1. Recommend

A team member who is strong in this area can consistently make recommendations based on thoughtful analysis. To grow this, give employees opportunities to share their recommendations and explain their rationale. Ask pointed questions and request alternative ideas to help develop a more thorough reasoning process.

According to Plummer, someone who is strong in recommending should be able to pass these criteria:

  • Do they always provide a recommendation when asking you questions instead of relying on you to come up with answers?
  • Do they demonstrate appreciation for the potential downsides of their recommendation?
  • Do they consider alternatives before landing on a recommendation?
  • Are their recommendations backed by strong, sensible reasoning?
  1. Generate

At this stage, employees should be able to build something from nothing. They may be given a vision or a target, but it is up to them to determine how to get there. Plummer believes workers need to see this modelled for them. Give others the opportunity to see your own process or to shadow a colleague who does this particularly well.

You’ll know they are developing strong skills through these questions:

  • Do they propose high-value work that doesn’t follow logically from work they are already doing?
  • Can they convert your and others’ visions into feasible plans for realizing those visions?
  • Can they figure out how to answer questions you have but don’t know how to answer?

At Kenyans Come Home, we've found an effective approach to assessing critical thinking skills in an interview setting, is to ask open-ended questions, allowing the candidate to walk you through their thought process and approach to various challenges or situations. 

We have also worked with numerous clients that have incorporated a case-based assessment to their recruitment process, to evaluate how candidates break down a problem, analyze potential actions or solutions, and present their recommendations. It’s not always important whether they are right or wrong; what’s important is to understand how they got to their answer. Within a dynamic and fast-changing work environment, we find that critical thinking skills can sometimes be a greater predictor of success than previous job-related experience.