The Status of Critical Thinking in the Workplace
If you read enough blog posts or journal articles in the talent management industry, you may have the overwhelming feeling that the sky is falling. Post after post details the impending leadership crisis, the unruliness and lack of loyalty among Millennials, and that’s before we even cross into issues like declining employee engagement, and digital disruptions.
And yet, in many ways, this assessment is actually correct. This video illustrates further research.
Study after study has confirmed that the skills gap is real for both the current leadership pipeline within organizations and for the talent pool accessed by recruiters.
Specifically, when it comes to skills like critical thinking, it is consistently rated by employers as being a skill of increasing importance, and yet a recent study showed 49% of employers rate their employees’ critical thinking skills as only average or below average.
Additionally, even though in higher education there has been a concerted effort to focus on critical thinking as a measurable outcome, employers are not seeing the results. Employers claim that the critical thinking skills gap is a significant problem with new hires, specifically in recent graduates. In fact, only 28% of employers rated 4-year graduates as having “Excellent” critical thinking skills. So, the burden and expense of training/developing those skills rests on the employers.
Ask any executive about the importance of critical thinking, and you will hear nothing but support and admiration for this essential skill. Most (69%) will even tell you about how they assess critical thinking skills in the selection process. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor has identified critical thinking as the raw material of a number of key workplace skills, such as problem solving, decision making, organizational planning and risk management.
With globalization and the increased speed of business, employees at every level are facing an increasingly complex flow of information. Work settings are changing rapidly, and employees are moving into new roles, often with limited direction. Employees can no longer rely on others to make key decisions. They often must make them on their own, and quickly. And the decisions have to be good ones. If they fall short, there may be no time to recover.
Good decisions require focusing on the most relevant information, asking the right questions, and separating reliable facts from false assumptions – all elements of critical thinking. And yet too few employees possess these essential skills.
Many business leaders also come up short. Senior executive-development professionals report that the competency that next-generation leaders lack the most is strategic thinking, which hinges on critical thinking skills. Many next-generation leaders also lack the ability to create a vision or to understand the total enterprise and how the parts work together – both competencies that are closely tied to critical thinking.
What can be done? Once organizations understand the role of critical thinking in everyday decision making, they can begin to take steps to develop that skill in their leaders and employees.
Research conducted in recent years by Pearson, as well as by a variety of independent academics, has shown that people who score well on critical thinking assessment are also rated by their supervisors as having:
- Good analysis and problem-solving skills
- Good judgment and decision making
- Good overall job performance
- The ability to evaluate the quality of information presented
- Job knowledge
- The potential to move up within the organization
Because it is often difficult to discern such critical thinking skills through a resume or job interview, many organizations are turning to assessments to help them evaluate candidates. One of the most widely used assessments in this area is the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. The Watson-Glaser offers a hard-skills appraisal, and is suited for people in professional and managerial positions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, independent research has also found that the higher up the ladder a position is, the more essential critical thinking becomes. People who are successful in these positions tend to be able to learn quickly, process information accurately, and are able to apply it to decision-making. One of the most well-established research findings in industrial psychology is that cognitive ability is directly related to performance in all jobs. Critical thinking, one type of cognitive ability, is of particular importance where sophisticated decision-making and judgment are required.
Fortunately, critical thinking can be taught.
Pearson has developed the following RED Model as the foundation for teaching critical thinking skills in all of its training solutions (including the Critical Thinking Boot Camp and Critical Thinking University). The RED Model is a way to view and apply critical thinking principles when faced with a decision.
Recognize Assumptions. This is the ability to separate fact from opinion. It is deceptively easy to listen to a comment or presentation and assume the information presented is true even though no evidence was given to back it up. Perhaps the speaker is particularly credible or trustworthy, or the information makes sense or matches our own view. We just don’t question it. Noticing and questioning assumptions helps to reveal information gaps or unfounded logic. Taking it a step further, when we examine assumptions through the eyes of different people (e.g., the viewpoint of different stakeholders), the end result is a richer perspective on a topic.
Evaluate Arguments. It is difficult to suspend judgment and systematically walk through various arguments and information with the impartiality of a Sherlock Holmes. The art of evaluating arguments entails analyzing information objectively and accurately, questioning the quality of supporting evidence, and understanding how emotion influences the situation. Common barriers include confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and agree with information that is consistent with you own point of view, or allowing emotions – yours or others – to get in the way of objective evaluation. People may quickly come to a conclusion simply to avoid conflict. Being able to remain objective and sort through the validity of different positions helps people draw more accurate conclusions.
Draw Conclusions. People who possess this skill are able to bring diverse information together to arrive at conclusions that logically follow from the available evidence, and they do not inappropriately generalize beyond the evidence. Furthermore, they will change their position when the evidence warrants doing so. They are often characterized as having “good judgment” because they typically arrive at a quality decision. Each of these critical thinking skills fits together in a process that is both fluid and sequential. When presented with information, people typically alternate between recognizing assumptions and evaluating arguments. Critical thinking is sequential in that recognizing faulty assumptions or weak arguments improves the likelihood of reaching an appropriate conclusion.
Although this process is fluid, it is helpful to focus on each of the RED skills individually when practicing skill development. With concentrated practice over time, typically several months, critical thinking skills can be significantly increased.
Critical thinking, perhaps more than any other business skill set, can make the difference between success and failure. Fortunately, these skills are not out of reach – they are readily available to employees at all levels. Once gained, critical thinking skills last a lifetime, and become a powerful asset for organizations seeking a competitive edge.
Excerpts of this article were taken from the Critical Thinking in Business White Paper. Download this paper for free.
About the Author:
Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.