Critical Thinking in Organizations: Are We Progressing or Digressing?

The surge of technology made our lives less complicated – we rely on GPS to tell us where to go and on Google to tell us what to do… However at times our reliance on the technology and the amount of information at our fingerprints have an adverse effect on our critical thinking – we tend to think less about the way we think…

The study carried by Greenfield from UCLA in 2009 found that modern learners have developed faster visual processing skills, but have diminished their critical thinking skills. Thus, we have become faster, but shallower thinkers. By all means, the technology is not “a bad guy”; in fact the technology can be instrumental in accessing and comparing information quickly. However, we have the ultimate role in critically analyzing and synthesizing what comes to us through a computer screen or iPhone.

As humans we think. Thinking comes to us very naturally. Depending on a personality type, job type, and daily activity, a person has between 20,000 and 50,000 thoughts daily. Our natural thinking is spontaneous, and includes bias, insight, good and bad thoughts, error and trial – all combined. As critical thinkers, we analyze our thinking. We apply the second order thinking to our natural thoughts – we assess and reconstruct our natural, first order thinking (Paul & Elder, 2002).

Critical thinking is an essential component to successful organizational functioning. Organizational competitiveness, productivity, and culture relate to the degree that employees are equipped with tackling the problem at its core rather than focusing on the symptoms of a problem. However, quite often we create vicious organizational cycles that prevent us from practicing and applying critical thinking skills. Time and multitasking pressures to solve problems quickly push employees at all levels to proceed with solutions based on superficial facts or information. Consequently, employees tackle symptoms of a problem only to realize that the same problem comes back again and again, and often in a more severe manifestation. Re-occuring problems create even more time pressures and more conflicting priorities. For instance, sales representatives may spend a lot of time creating marketing strategies for a hard-to-sell product; yet the underlying problem may be not a selling or advertisement strategy, but a defected product.

So how do we break this vicious cycle? We can start with leadership. First step is embracing the importance of assessing problems, their symptoms and causes from systemic perspective. Differentiating between the problem and its symptoms is another step. A high employee turnover may be just a symptom of poor management practices, and not a core problem. Higher management can also allocate more time for them and their employees to define and analyze problems thoroughly; especially of these problems are re-occuring.

Coaching employees to think critically is another strategy. Critical thinking questions can be incorporate in individual supervision: “Where do you think it fits within organizational goals? Why is it important to do it? If we do not complete the task, what consequences will we experience? What impact does it have on our customers/clients? What do you think are the causes of the problem? Solutions?” While asking these questions on on-going basis, leadership establishes an expectation for an employee to think through a problem or a question before jumping to conclusion hastily.

Thus, before critical thinking becomes an extinguished phenomenon in organizations, we can put a sustained mental effort to cultivate and practice it – for the sake of employees, customers, and organizational effectiveness.

Paul, R.W. & Elder, L. (2002). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your professional and personal life. Pearson Education, Inc.: New Jersey

4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking in Organizations: Are We Progressing or Digressing?”

  1. Has the new technology really made our lives less complicated? I think not. Technology has set new standards so close to perfection that what was once communicated on a chalk board now “requires” a power point presentation and full color handouts. Yes, the latter may enhance the presentation of an idea but is it at a cost of time and money better spent actually working on the idea itself? It is not that the use of technology is never worth the extra effort but rather that its use has now become expected each and every time.

    I totally agree that “we have the ultimate role in critically analyzing and synthesizing what comes to us through a computer screen or iPhone.” But that is unfortunately not happening. Think of all the totally bogus “viral” commentaries that come into your in box from outraged friends who don’t take the time to check with Snopes.com. If people can’t take a moment to determine if Bill Cosby really IS tired or if Mountain Dew shrinks testicles then can we expect them to approach more complicated issues critically? No, just look at the astounding numbers of people who still believe the President is not a US citizen!

    I’ve copied the questions that might be used in coaching employees to think critically and will use them personally. This was an interesting and insightful posting; wouldn’t it be great to incorporate such thinking in our schools?

    1. Yes, the school system would definitely benefit from more exercising more critical thinking. We fill our children with so much content from their early years, yet not paying so much attention at their thinking skills.

      Thank you for your comments!

  2. Critical thinking can only be valued if the leadership of the organization you are working with values it. So this begs the question, what to do if your organizational leadership is not or does not value critical thinking skills when it comes to problem resolution?

    1. Good question. There is no sole answer to your question or an ultimate strategy that would motivate the leadership to embrace the importance of critical thinking. Yet, there are some approaches that we all can take as responsible “citizens” of an organization.

      Whether we are front line employees or middle management, we still can practice critical thinking skills. While we would not be able to change the major organizational systems, we still can improve the way we treat and solve problems, and make decisions within the realm of our positions. The degree to which we apply critical thinking skills directly relates to quality of our life as well as lives of those around us.

      We can also provide feedback to higher management. Though it may not be “a safe” approach in some organizations that maintain a punitive culture; it may be a welcome approach in many organizations that solicit employee feedback through supervisory meetings, employee surveys, 360 evaluations, or exit interviews.

      Usually when an organization goes through a crisis, the leaders get a wake up call to think more critically so that to initiate the change…

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