How To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills
With more information than ever at our fingertips, solving problems and making decisions at work should be easy, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Without critical thinking skills to help us, that mountain of data is just as likely to mislead us as it is to help. Cognitive bias, emotional reactions and an uptick in fake news are all arrayed against us. How can anyone be sure that they’re making the right decision?
Luckily, you can improve your critical thinking skills. No matter what your role, critical thinking skills are a valuable asset that will stand you in good stead – inside and outside the office.
What are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate information objectively and arrive at a conclusion. It’s a deeper kind of thinking in which you will question, analyse and evaluate the information you have at hand to help solve a problem or arrive at a decision.
This evaluation can include where the information has come from, whether it can be supported by valid, credible evidence and whether the person presenting it – even if that’s you – has any biases or motives.
Why is critical thinking important in business?
Critical thinking helps you succeed in business by helping you make good decisions that solve problems, capitalise on opportunities and ensure that resources are used effectively and efficiently.
This is true no matter what industry you’re in. Beyond the solving of problems, the development of critical thinking skills can also aid the following:
The best critical thinkers are also creative thinkers. Creative people question assumptions and limits. They look past their cognitive biases and take wider information into account. This allows them to take well-calculated risks and come up with bold new ideas.
When you know how to weigh new information, and are open to conflicting ideas, you’re better able to work in a team. Applying critical thinking skills in team settings means that you’re better able to take on and synthesise the perspectives of others.
Embracing diversity of thought
Different people bring different priorities, perspectives and experiences to bear in a workplace. Critical thinkers are able to see that divergent thinking is valuable, even if other perspectives go against their initial assumptions, and are able to apply them in making decisions and interpreting data.
Critical thinkers understand that their first conclusion may not be the right one. They’re also aware that some information is designed to mislead and play to our biases. Pushing through to a more objective truth – and being less precious about their initial ideas – builds resilience.
7 ways to improve your critical thinking skills
When employing critical thinking, you need to be able to institute a rational process that is suitable for the problem you’re trying to solve and that allows you to assess all the evidence and reach a conclusion.
Critical thinking is not unlike the scientific method, which is viewed as an extensive, structured mode of critical thinking that involves hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion.
To improve your critical thinking skills, implement the following strategies:
1. Start with the right mindset
To get started, choose a time when you’re not under stress. High stakes make for panicked thinking, so start your critical thinking when things are calm and you have some clear head space to focus on it.
2. Stay outcome-focused
Remembering what you’re trying to achieve can help you avoid getting side-tracked and be more discerning about what information you consider. Thinking in different ways may lead you in unexpected and interesting directions, which can derail you if you’re not focused on what you need to achieve.
3. Recognise your biases
Cognitive bias can creep into decision-making at all levels, but cognitive bias can especially affect leaders. Be especially wary if your eventual solution is the one you first thought of, or is convenient to you. This might suggest that you are letting bias creep in to get a desired outcome or conform with assumptions you already hold.
4. Adopt an ‘information funnel’
When you begin the critical thinking process, you should gather information widely – as if from the mouth of a funnel. Ask broad questions and collect data from a wide range of sources. As you learn more, you should narrow your focus to get to the goal. Start focusing on the most credible sources of information and asking more pointed questions.
5. Collaborate with others
Two heads are definitely better than one when trying to come up with an objective strategy. Be open to feedback, especially including opinions that don’t gel with yours.
6. Seek out diverse opinions
To make collaboration more valuable, try and get perspectives from people with a different background, skill set or experiences. They may point out things that wouldn’t have occurred to you.
7. Test your hypothesis
Once you’ve come up with a conclusion, stress-test it. You can do this by conducting thought experiments, seeking alternative points of view or conducting experiments like A/B tests or pilot programs.
Ask yourself questions like: what information would change your mind? What would need to change in the current scenario for the conclusion to be wrong? Is it possible that these variables exist?
Improving critical thinking takes practice
Remember that critical thinking is a skill. And like any skill, keeping it sharp and improving it takes practice. If you find any of these exercises confronting at first, keep at it. It’s a valuable skill both inside and out of the workplace.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Entrepreneur, The Balance and ZipRecruiter.