Critical thinking – cognitive skills for next generation management

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills

Over two decades ago, the Secretary of Labor appointed a commission to determine the skills our young people would need to succeed in the working world. The commission’s fundamental purpose was to encourage a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment. Although the commission completed its work in 1992, its findings and recommendations ring true in the new millennium.

The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report identified critical thinking skills as being essential for a high-performance workplace. The post identifies a three-part skills foundation: basic literacy and computational skills, the thinking skills necessary to put knowledge to work, and the personal qualities that make workers dedicated and trustworthy. This foundation in thinking skills includes creativity, decision making, problem solving, seeing things in the mind’s eye, knowing how-to-learn, and reasoning. Today’s work place puts a premium on reasoning skills and an ability and willingness to learn.”

The findings in the SCANS report have been reinforced in subsequent studies.  In 2009 the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report, The Intelligent Enterprise:  Creating a culture of speedy and efficient decision-making. The report states that “despite the wide recognition that accurate and timely decision-making is crucial, most firms’ ability to make good decisions needs improvement.”

The Conference Board identified two key skills needed by successful leaders in their report, Developing Business Leaders for 2010—analytical ability—especially the ability to sort through information sources and focus on the most relevant aspects—and the ability to make sound decisions in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty.

In September 2011, the Corporate Executive Board surveyed 5,000 workers, globally, and found a lack of analytical skills was “pervasive among both the general employees and among management.” Only 38% of the average workforce uses a balance of judgment and data in their decision making.

Critical Thinking Skills are Essential

Critical thinking skills can be defined as the ability to exercise sound reasoning and analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to resolve workplace issues.  They are essential for:

  1. Solving problems and making decisions. Rapid changes in the workplace require delegating decision making and problem solving farther and farther down the organization. Among today’s workers the critical thinking skills for analysis, problem solving, and teamwork are in high demand and short supply.
  2. Problem prevention. Preventing problems does not happen automatically. Identifying potential problems and planning preventive and contingent actions require good, solid analytical thinking.
  3. Effective teamwork. The benefits of teamwork are oft reported; but teamwork is not automatic. Teams experience growing pains and they take time to mature into productive units. Team members need critical thinking skills for communication, conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving, and self-management.
  4. Empowerment. Effective empowerment means providing the responsibilities and the skills for people to manage their own work and to do it effectively. To keep teams cohesive, a common language for solving problems and making decisions is needed.  These skills empower people to work together to solve problems, make better-balanced decisions, and manage business-critical projects.

The Challenge of the 21st Century

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that during the 2010-20 decade, over 54.8 million job openings are expected and more than half—61.6%—will come from the need to replace workers from the baby boom generation as they retire or otherwise permanently leave an occupation. A lack of critical thinking skills among new employees compounds the loss of institutional knowledge held by employees leaving the workplace.
  • As organizations become more global, the diversity of the workforce requires a common approach to resolving organizational issues that can surmount cultural and language barriers.
  • The information explosion continues to move at a rapid pace with no end in sight. This accelerates the rate that technical knowledge becomes obsolete while exponentially flooding our lives with data. As a result, the ability to organize and evaluate information with an analytic eye is increasingly important.

Putting the puzzle together

Rapid fire changes in the workplace mean increased responsibilities for many employees. These new responsibilities mean that analytical skills, driven by a process that is underpinned by logic and good questioning, are key to maintaining competitive advantage. Sharpening the thinking skills of workers and providing a context in which they want to and can succeed is a key to solving the 21st century challenge of staying competitive in environment of rapid change.

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:
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, from Pearson TalentLens. 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 jobs5.
Critical thinking, one type of cognitive ability, is of particular importance where sophisticated decision-making and judgment are required.
It is not uncommon for organizations to ignore such research findings when they are engaged in succession planning or top-level executive searches. Organizations often assume that everyone at the highest corporate levels is bright and a “good thinker,” so they don’t assess their candidates’ critical thinking capabilities. However, a 2009 study by Ones and Dilchert6 found that there is variability in critical thinking ability within groups of executives (as well as among supervisors and managers). Although executives generally did perform better on critical thinking tests when compared with other groups, there was a wide range of higher and lower scores.
Simply put, the research found that some top executives are better at critical thinking than others – and so are likely to be more successful. It is important to note that research has also found a positive correlation between certain personality characteristics and job success.
Consequently, organizations that include both critical thinking and personality in their battery of assessments tend to get a more comprehensive view of a candidate than do organizations that use either personality or critical thinking assessments alone.

fortunately, critical thinking can be taught. Pearson has developed the following RED Model – Recognize Assumptions, Evaluate Arguments,
Draw Conclusions – as a way to view and apply critical thinking principles when faced with a decision. This model is particularly helpful in critical-thinking training programs.
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.

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