Can You Really Coach Employees in Critical Thinking?

Some say no; people are born with certain abilities and it’s nearly impossible to teach complex talents like critical thinking. Others argue yes: with the right attitude, guidance, and hard work, critical thinking is like a muscle that can be strengthened. Just take a look at the growing awareness and acceptance of concepts like the growth mindset. More and more people today understand that obtaining new skills is a matter of opportunity. 

What is critical thinking, and why is it important?

Critical thinking relates to so many aspects of our lives that there’s not a single definition beyond the ability to make a decision. Many of them overlap with other concepts such as problem solving, creativity, and logic. To avoid confusion, a simple approach is to define critical thinking based on its core phrase: ‘critical’, i.e., centered on criticism. Critical thinking can be summed up as criticizing or investigating ideas in order to refine numerous options and reach the best one (and then smooth things over with your skills in empathy). In this sense, critical thinking is an important teamwork skill

Critical thinking is essential for employees – especially amongst leadership – in any organization that needs to make decisions. Once a list of possibilities is defined, critical thinking narrows them down to something realistic and practical. 

Yet the skill of critical thinking is greatly lacking in the workplace. According to this SHRM report, critical thinking is tied with problem solving as accounting for the greatest skill gap. The situation isn’t getting better, either, as half of companies believe that this ability is actually declining in their workforce.  

What are the different aspects of critical thinking? 

One’s mindset is “critical” in critical thinking, as it influences a person’s approach. As is true with many skills (such as a growth mindset, a philosophy of constant learning, etc.) attitude counts. Whenever an employee is confronted with a situation that requires critical thinking, the right mindset will set them off in the right direction:

  • Considering ideas critically while delaying judgment. With a critical thinking mindset, employees will take the time to evaluate each alternative until they have a thorough understanding of them. 
  • Ignoring personal bias. Ideas must be seen on their own merit, regardless of the source. The judgment of an idea, either due to liking or disapproval of the person who came up with the idea, will result in poor decision making and lead to conflict.  
  • Applying the principle of charity. This doesn’t mean putting something in the donation box. The principle of charity assumes that every idea has pros and cons. Proper critical thinking will realize the best parts of every idea with an eye towards combining their strengths. 

The common denominator for all of these elements is that they involve making a decision. Although critical thinking skills should ideally be part of every employee’s abilities, making decisions is usually the role of a leader. For this reason, critical thinking is considered a leadership skill that will continue growing in importance for years to come. 

What are some examples where critical thinking comes in handy?

Critical thinking is an imperative skill for anybody who wishes to make smart choices and minimize time spent on wrong directions. Here are some examples of critical thinking in the workplace that many leaders will encounter:

Dealing with a crisis

Trouble in the workplace naturally involves panic and a flood of suggestions about what to do. Critical thinking enables decision makers to assess the best ideas in a rapid manner and come up with solutions quickly.  

Hiring employees

Managers are often involved in deciding whom to pick from a list of candidates. Through critical thinking, applicants will be judged according to their potential value to the firm, instead of according to the personal preferences of the manager. 

Building a strategy

Constructing a productive long-term vision for an organization requires an extensive process of choosing between numerous alternatives. Critical thinking provides a method for examining each choice methodically and logically.  

What are the basic skills and steps of critical thinking?

Applying critical thinking is, in many ways, a set of steps, each of which depends on a particular skill element. In a very basic sense, here is the process of running through a critical thinking evaluation, along with the related skill elements:

  • Organization – The first step is to break down the issue to understand its precise nature, and organize the problem into manageable factors. Organization is also used to set priorities and decide which factors will be addressed first, and then once more to collect ideas for a solution. 
  • Communication – Once ideas are gathered, the leader needs to ask questions and explain any areas of confusion. If the leader is the point of contact for detailing the process to other parts of the company, communication skills are important here as well. 
  • Decision making – The final step is to come up with a course of action. Again, this might consist of choosing one idea, or combining aspects of several.  

What are the best ways to learn critical thinking?

Books and courses are excellent starting points for learning critical thinking. But, like many soft skills, the ability to apply critical thinking depends on the individual. Some people have a natural ability to judge between alternatives while others require refinement. Performance is typically the main motivation for employees, so watching somebody as they approach decisions at work is the most constructive route. Hiring a coach to view how an employee engages in critical thinking is a highly practical approach. 

A typical routine for coaching critical thinking can involve:

  1. Discussing tasks where critical thinking is required, and identifying the most crucial and immediate ones 
  2. Running through the basic critical thinking steps listed above while providing feedback and direction
  3. Meeting with the employee’s manager to review the process, discuss the employee’s performance, and determine if the cycle should go through another round  

One critical step for mastering critical thinking

GrowthSpace’s L&D platform enables companies to optimize their employee coaching and L&D programs for the development of critical thinking skills. With GrowthSpace technology, L&D managers get connected to the world’s top coaches and mentors in specialized fields, so their employees benefit from rapid, effective skill enhancement.