How thinking critically needs to be a team sport for leaders

Leadership and critical thinking are intimately connected. If you look at virtually any business problem, it goes back to one simple thing — poor, unethical leadership. 

“Decisions are often based upon woefully incomplete levels of thinking. If we can teach people how to think more critically, more creatively and more ethically, how to think at a deeper level, we won’t get caught in this myth of two choices — the ‘either/or.’ We need to really look at all the data and its implications,” says James Uhl, an adjunct professor of Organizational Leadership at Woodbury University’s Institute of Transdisciplinary Studies.

Smart Business spoke with Uhl about how critical thinking can be applied by business leaders for a healthier organization.

Is it your assumption that critical thinking is in short supply?

Critical thinking is not our default setting. Unlike other species, we have the capacity to think our way through things, but just because it’s our aptitude doesn’t mean it’s our default. 

Why isn’t critical thinking our first impulse?

If left to our own devices, most of our thinking will be egocentric. We have been wired biologically to care for ourselves. As we live in a more globally connected society, we need to think more critically about how our decisions affect others. We’ve got to fight through that natural default setting. 

Does this also apply to institutions?

Individually, we’re egocentric. When you’re talking about our companies, our societies, we’re also incredibly sociocentric. We perpetuate shortsighted thinking that only seems to be in our best interest. And when we limit ourselves to that, we can make some really incomplete decisions.

What’s your definition of critical thinking?

The best way to describe it is awareness. I subscribe to the Paulian theory of critical thinking, developed by Richard Paul, Ph.D., and Linda Elder, Ph.D., of Sonoma State University’s Center for Critical Thinking. It says: Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking, with a view to improve your thinking. ‘Are there certain experiences that cause me to think this way or to have a certain prejudice or bias?’ This is integral to leadership. At the heart of leadership is influence. If you want to be able to influence people, you have to be constantly thinking at a very deep level: ‘How can I influence people in a positive and ethical way?’

How does the concept of critical thinking align with the business imperative to maximize profits?

Shortsighted business thinking is focused on the bottom line, but it’s incomplete. Obviously, we need to be concerned about corporate performance. But if you look at the research that shows how disengaged people are from work, it’s clear that critical thinking can be used to enhance engagement. Critical thinking is not a solo sport. When it’s done in teams and in a disciplined way, with a spirit of inquiry and a commitment to learning, engagement is enhanced and relationships can be built. When you’re talking about building engagement people are going to be more productive — they will take risks for the organization’s benefit.

They’ll have the courage to come up with innovative ideas. Critical thinking is a relationship builder when used to build confidence in business.

So critical thinking can be taught?

We have asked people to analyze situations their entire lives but have never shown them a method by which to do it. That’s why I love the Paulian model. It’s so accessible. It breaks down what analysis and assessment are. You can look at someone’s thinking and ask, ‘Is it clear? Is it accurate? Is it precise? Is it significant? Does it have depth? Does it have breadth? Does it have fairness?’ Today, we treat teaching as an event. But it’s really a lot less about what I want you to know and more about what I want you to be able to do with what you know. We need to start giving our kids problems to solve and models on how to think things through, rather than just teaching to the test.

It’s too easy to say, ‘now I’ve passed the test — I’m moving on.’ No, you’ve got this information; now go do something with it. Go contribute, go think your way through this.

James Uhl is adjunct professor for Organizational Leadership at The Institute of Transdisciplinary Studies at Woodbury University. Reach him at [email protected]
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