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How can we encourage leaders to be more habitual in using critical thinking?

There are several aspects I would like to mention that we can do to encourage leaders to think critically. The first think that I usually start my training with is asking the participants to identify the situations where critical thinking was used and what were the consequences, and also to identify the situations when critical thinking was not used and what were the consequences.

The emphasis here is on the word 'consequences'. By doing that, leaders can see the contrast between the consequences that using or not using critical thinking produces. This contrast creates this 'why', the relevance of critical thinking understanding to business practices. They are usually very eager to present examples, especially the wrong ones. However, only giving examples and consequences of using or not using critical thinking is essential but not sufficient.

Another thing that is also very important is to train and coach leaders to think critically; it is not a coincidence that a large number of CEO's come from the big management consulting companies, so-called 'CEO factories', such as McKinsey and Bain. Those are the companies which train critical thinking and problem-solving skills to the highest level in their daily jobs.

A leader who has spent a part of their career working for a big consulting firm learns how to think criticially, analyse a problem, structure and simplify its complexity.

Leaders, who do not have this background, can develop critical thinking skills during intensive trainings and follow-up coaching. For example, the participants of my training develop the skills of structuring and organising arguments, which add to the clarity of thought and logic, as well as communication. They also learn about the importance and selection of strong evidence, identification and testing of assumptions behind one's line of reasoning.

In addition, they become familiar with the most frequent unconscious biases; how these biases influence our everyday leadership practice and our decision-making. They also learn how to combat unconscious bias either individually, on a group or organisational level. Furthermore, it is important to realise that developing higher level thinking skills is a process, not a one-time training, so sustained practicing and follow-up coaching sessions are necessary to keep the skill development on track.

In addition to what already has been said, the organisational environment significantly impacts the extent and quality of practicing critical thinking. In other words, there should also be an ecosystem of the whole organisation that destigmatises different opinions, is inclusive to diverse perspectives and, is willing to look beyond the obvious. If an organisation is bureaucratic, its leaders demonstrate a command and control type of leadership, or an organisation possesses a high level of dysfunction and low level of trust, there is not much room for exercising critical thinking.

Very often, critical thinking is understood as merely a set of analytical tools, geared at building arguments and solving problems. But those tools can be used both for the good and the bad. Therefore, I want to emphasise that it is important to talk about mindset as an indispensable foundation for exercising critical thinking. That is where critical thinking, moral character and emotional intelligence meet. I use the word ‘skattitude’ from the book ‘Relax it's only uncertainty’ by Hodgson and White.

To be a good critical thinker, we need both skills and attitude. Mindset is really difficult to acquire because it develops over time and has to do a lot with the willingness of the person to cultivate that mindset. Therefore while selecting the leaders it is important to pay attention to the mindset that displays respect, curiosity and open-mindedness as well as sound moral character and creativity.

We are often told not to 'jump straight to solutions', yet having identified a problem, that's often what we tend to do - have you identified ways in which leaders can approach problem solving more effectively?

I would like to start answering this question with some reflection on why critical thinking and problem-solving are leadership competencies that are difficult to develop. I see several aspects of this issue:

  • Firstly, our current business environments are fast-paced and hectic, geared towards productivity and effectiveness, that forces leaders to make quick decisions often without thorough consideration.
  • Secondly, business leaders themselves are often prone to action bias, and not everyone devotes a sufficient amount of time and energy to reflection and analysis; the third aspect is my already mentioned critical thinking mindset, which is not possessed by everyone.
  • Thirdly, there are two types of problem-solving, fast and slow, to use Daniel Kahneman’s distinction. In a fast way, human decision-making is  intuitive and automatic, that's what people often use in a crisis. This is our default way of problem-solving, that is why we ‘jump to solutions’.

The main issue is that this type of problem-solving is prone to bias and might not serve us well, especially when we talk about more complex strategic and long-term decisions. A slow way of problem-solving, on the other hand, is systematic, more complex and requires more intellectual effort. That is the seat of critical thinking. If we talk about the competencies of critical thinking and problem-solving, the difficulty lies probably in the amount of time and practice it needs to be internalised into our knowledge system.

A slow problem-solving approach is essential when making complex decisions and solving complex problems. It requires sharpness of focus and a systematic approach to problem-solving. But often people do not know how to systematically approach a problem. Many educational traditions, up until recently, were more focused on knowledge acquisition and learning more descriptively, without paying a lot of attention to problem-based learning. Current educational institutions understand this need and include more critical thinking and problem-solving approach in their curriculum. Even then some younger students complain that problem-based learning is challenging or boring and is only used for ‘thesis research’. It takes maturity to think on a higher level, deeper and broader. And we need to start with a thorough problem analysis.

To use Einstein’s quote, ‘if I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes identifying the problem and 5 minutes for solving it.' Problem analysis is the most difficult step in problem-solving, that is why it requires so much time and attention. And if we do not spend the relevant time on identifying the problem, which means defining the gap between the current situation and desirable situation, analysing deeply the root causes that cause this gap (causes are the windows to solutions!), then we might come up with the solution which is irrelevant to the actual problem. And that already creates a lot of issues.

Often in dysfunctional organisations, we see the tendency to blame the last person in the line, while the actual problem occurs in a completely different place. If leaders do not have that ability to think deeper and broader, to eliminate the noise information that clutters their understanding and see the core of the issue, then they are likely to solve the wrong problems. Therefore, we need leaders who are able to cut through that clutter, go to the core issue, ask the right questions. We need leaders who understand the consequences of bad problem solving and are willing to invest time and resources in improving that. It needs time and practice initially, but when internalised such skills make us more efficient.

Up until now, I was mostly talking about developing critical thinking and problem-solving competencies as an individual, but external mechanisms built into the DNA of organizational practice can also help leaders to think critically. The best organisations have external mechanisms that encourage leaders to think critically. For example, when making more complex and strategic decisions the company employs an official devil’s advocate to destigmatize different opinions and raise challenges to a proposed solution. Another example is so-called pre-mortem analysis when the board members think about the potential failures of a certain project or decision, and then through reverse engineering reason back to the causes of those failures. The third example is related to the companies asking for two different proposals produced by different people, for example, internal and external, to propose different solutions to a problem.

We live in a time of high uncertainty, where problem-solving and decision-making are based on a lot of incomplete information when the future is not clear. Leaders need to embrace that, and approach that uncertainty with a prepared mind – a mind, which knows what to look for and makes connections even though the reality is chaotic and uncertain.

Voices from our community: Giedre Vasiliauskaite is a lecturer, trainer and coach specialised in critical thinking, leadership and cross-cultural communication skills development.

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