Question the Answers: Using Critical Thinking to Change Workplace Dynamics

“Heresy is another word for freedom of thought.” Graham Greene

I often hear people say, “We need more critical thinking in the world, we should be teaching it in schools.” I don’t disagree with those ideas. But I wonder if we understand how much change real critical thinking would bring – to our schools, to the workplace, to our cultures and to our personal lives.

I’m not an expert in the progress of
pedagogy, but I suspect that the teaching of critical thinking isn’t at
the top of most school lists in this “Age of Austerity” (at least for
most). We don’t really understand critical thinking enough to know how
much we struggle and suffer from a lack of it.  

Most corporations and institutions say they need innovation, creativity, sustainability and trust to compete in the 21st
century.  They understand that the new worker is a knowledge worker and
that continuous learning is the jewel in the crown of assets to get
there. But I don’t think they really mean they want critical thinkers!

Critical thinkers ask questions. They must “live in the questions as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. To the critical mind, questions lead to more questions. Critical thinkers not only challenge the status quo, they shake it up. They turn the status quo on its head and always ask, “Is there another way?”  That’s not comfortable to those who have an “immunity” to change.

That’s  why it’s tough for most
institutions and organizations to really embrace the full meaning and
possibility of unleashing critical thinking within their cultures. While
we’re in the grip of a powerful cultural meme that says that
governments stifle progress and growth and businesses free it – neither
are true.

Critical thinkers pose a threat to
norms, to the safe and the orthodox. Critical thinkers toss the
moneylenders out of the temple. Their very essence is to challenge
atrophied practices and outdated assumptions.

For critical thinking to thrive, it
must operate in an atmosphere of trust. Power politics, organizational
and personal,  shut down free thinking and the honest exchange of ideas –
and are the enemy of critical thought.

The Essence of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is essentially the ability to think about thinking. Most people don’t think about their thinking, and it’s not a skill many
of us have acquired. In a results-driven culture, thinking about
thinking feels passive. But developing the skills of a critical thinker
is anything but passive. In its purest form, it requires the present and
active involvement and engagement of the thinker in every experience.

In defining critical thinking many people get negatively hooked by the word – critical.
The critical in the context of critical thinking doesn’t mean
disapproval or judgment.  In fact, the skilled critical thinker needs to
have the ability to think with great clarity and neutrality. The
critical thinker is not without opinion, but has the ability to view
experience from multiple perspectives.

Sharpening the Skills of Critical Thinking 

The classic core elements of critical thinking include: observation,
interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and
meta-cognition. How we understand and define these tools is important to
the development of critical thinking.

  • Observation
    – I think of this as the constant development and refinement of our
    ability to not only be self-aware but to cultivate the neutral
    (non-judgmental) “witnessing” of our own experience of self and others.
    This is the foundational skill we use to build critical thought.
  • Challenging Beliefs and Norms –
    Norms form around comfort. While comfort may feel good, it can also be a
    refuge from change. Unexamined beliefs form major blind spots to
    critical thinking. We cannot discern the evidence we need to substantiate certain claims and assertions, if non-factual beliefs dominate our thinking.
  • Ask Deep and Engaging Questions –
    Questions are surely the crux of critical thinking, but learning to ask
    deeper and more engaging questions is the key. Most of us have been
    conditioned by rote learning and memorization and our questioning skills
    have been weakened in the process.
  • Brain Integration
    One major cultural assumption that limits critical thinking is the idea
    that emotions are the enemy of reason. Rationality (the thinking we
    associate with the neo-cortical functions of our brain) is nearly always
    considered the Supreme ruler of critical thinking. Truth is we need a
    greater ability to integrate and balance both our so-called thinking
    brain and our feeling brain to maximize understanding and heighten
    experience. Familiarity with the information from our feeling brain
    invites intuitive and sensual experience into the equation.
  • Collaborative Thinking
    Critical thinking is social thinking. Practices in all areas of
    culture, but especially in the workplace, continue to foster
    authoritarian, left-brain, hierarchical thinking processes.
    Collaborative thinking requires exceptional listening abilities and the
    willingness to let go of control in over-asserting our own positions.
  • Information and Learning
    The critical thinker understands that learning is a continuous process
    and is actively seeking and open to new ideas and experiences. The
    critical thinker seeks out information not as a means to an end but to
    understand more about other people, their experiences and the larger
  • Becoming Literate in the Emotions that Support Critical ThoughtAll
    emotions are of value to the critical thinker, but some are
    particularly important to engage, promote and sustain critical thought.
    Courage, confidence, enthusiasm, excitement, fascination, passion,
    optimism, satisfaction, wonder, appreciation, empathy, compassion,
    acceptance, calm and curiosity – the great driver of critical thought.
  • Meta-CognitionA
    very spiffy term to describe the critical thinker’s automatic awareness
    of their own knowledge and their ability to understand and control
    their own cognitive process. So – learning more about how we learn serves the critical thinker in their continuous path of growth.

Our need for critical thinking is
greater today than ever before. We need to find a way to step outside of
isolated and polarized thinking. We must learn to question the
assumptions, information and behaviors that have led us to where we are

Most of us would agree that tepid
reforms won’t change our workplaces or our culture. Critical thinkers
challenge the safe, the comfortable and the inevitable. They are always
going for ideas that have greater impact and depth. They make
connections between things that appear on the surface as unrelated. They
seek out possibilities even when problems seem insurmountable.

If we want to truly unleash the power of critical thinking, we’ll have to overcome the barriers of fear and passivity; entrenched and informal power arrangements; bias and conformity and the willingness to tolerate uncertainty.

It’s a tall order – are we ready?

As always, I appreciate your readership, comments, subscriptions, shares and tweets!

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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