Work / Life

How to Master Critical Thinking in 5 Easy Steps

Illustration of a woman reading a magazine

Many might feel like critical thinking can be filed away once they’ve earned their degree. But critical thinking is even more important in the workplace than it is in university.

Employers seek candidates with critical thinking skills more than ever. It has become a vital ingredient in the success and profitability of organizations. 

Critical thinking can also be useful when setting goals for your career. If you can think your goals through properly, you can focus on building new skills and anticipate setbacks before they occur.  

So, how exactly do you become a good critical thinker without having to become an ancient Greek philosopher?

What is critical thinking and why you should care about it

Before we dive into exactly what it takes to think critically, let’s break down the basics.

Every scholar on the planet can probably present a slightly different definition of what critical thinking really means. But what it really boils down to is this: don’t take anything at face value.

This means having a critical and analytical approach to things in order to provide an objective judgment.

Critical thinking actually entails evaluating information both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses. This distinction is important to understand in order to become better at critical thinking, especially in your work life.

Critical thinking is highly sought after by every company. According to by World Economic Forum, critical thinking is going to be second most needed skill by 2020 in order to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It comes only after complex problem solving, which is, as we are going to illustrate later, closely related to critical thinking.

The anatomy of critical thinking

Mastering critical thinking is not as difficult as you might think. However, it requires dedication and learning to be more conscious of your thought processes.

The more you apply these steps to problems or challenges you encounter, the more skilled you will become.

Step 1: Know your environment and identify the core problem

Before you can start applying your critical thinking skills, you need to figure out what the exact problem you are dealing with is. In order to do that, you first have to fully understand the situation at hand before jumping to any conclusions.

In workplace situations, especially if you are a manager or a business owner, challenges don’t appear in a neat, organized package. They are messy and complicated.

Without a proper understanding of every part of your problem, solving it won’t be easy. Understanding exactly what needs fixing can be especially difficult when you are looking at the situation from a big picture perspective.  

Many professionals fall into the trap of “big picture perspective” because it’s a skill many companies value.

But it’s not always a good thing.

You have to learn how to be systematic at breaking down complex problems into smaller parts in order to evaluate them properly. This might mean digging deeper into processes, routines and even organization culture in order to understand what part might be not working as it should.

Understanding the smaller parts or the problem makes it easier to return to the big picture and identify the core question that needs to be answered in order to improve the situation. Without a clear and specific question, it may be difficult to come up with the correct solution.

UK-based Tesco’s launch of their Fresh & Easy store in the US is a good example of an inadequate situation analysis.

Extensive market research, which even included Tesco executives living with American families to understand their shopping habits, did little to prevent the concept from failing.

American consumers were simply not visiting the Fresh & Easy store, despite their competitive prices.

At a later analysis something interesting was discovered. During their research, Tesco executives failed to realize that Americans were not accustomed to everyday low prices.

They needed coupons and special offers to feel like they’ve gotten a good deal. The research missed out on this important aspect of American consumer behavior, which changed the core problem they were trying to solve.

The core problem was not only about providing consumers with the low prices, but also about the way they were presented.

Step 2: Do your own research and ask questions

One of the key traits of a critical thinker is curiosity. To exercise your critical thinking muscle you can ask two types of questions: the “whats” and the “whys”.

The “whats” will provide you with facts and existing thoughts about your situation.

You don’t even have to track down an expert for that. Google will get you very far. Just make sure your questions are as open-ended as possible, and make sure to use good sources.

The ability to ask open-ended questions and seek out available information is essential for reflecting on the validity of the facts and arguments you are presented with. In other words, the more you know, the better you will be at spotting things like fake news or weak arguments.

The “whys” will question the assumptions and existing thoughts in the area you are researching.

Asking questions in a workplace can have a little bit of a bad stigma around it.

People can feel silly about it, especially if the person whose statement they are questioning has more authority or seniority than them. If you’ve ever felt like this, remember this: critical thinking is developed by asking questions. There is no way around it.

Questioning assumptions and statement is a good practice of critical thinking because it trains you not to take anything at face value. A simple “why” can reveal flaws in yours or other’s logic. 

Nobody will ask the perfect questions right away. It’s also a skill that is learned over time.

As you are doing your own research you will get better at spotting unsourced claims and false information. If you need a little motivation, use Toggl’s time tracking to record how much time you are spending on research. After a while, you’ll see those number shrinking.

Step 3: Identify biases

This is considered to be one of the most difficult parts of critical thinking because it requires self-reflection. Figuring out your biases and beliefs is no easy task.

It calls for an objective, honest evaluation of yourself. It can be hard to spend time with yourself, but it’s necessary because without it growth and reflections are not possible.

One of the simplest ways to start is by asking yourself why you believe what you believe, and whether it holds any importance to you.

Our brains tend to skip steps in our thought processes to save time and energy. This means that we don’t always consciously know why we think what we think. That can lead to flawed worldviews and biases. Even something as simple as the perception of time isn’t safe.

Once you can articulate your thoughts and reasons behind them, you have a greater chance of seeing holes in your thinking.

True critical thinking entails, as American Philosophical Association put it, “always seeks the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness.” This is the opposite of the so-called “weak-sense critical thinking” where the practices of critical thinking are applied to support one’s bias or agenda.

The more you question your beliefs, the more objectively you can approach future problems.

Your own biases are not the only ones you should consider.

Pause to think from the perspective of your customers, employees, and suppliers.

What goals motivate them and what biases might influence their decision-making process?

Identifying what drives you or others, both consciously and subconsciously, gives you the power to recognize when an argument or an agenda is based on wrongful grounds.

In work situations, this can mean recognizing a toxic coworker driven by selfish goals, or even stop a project from failure.

Let’s return to the Tesco example for a moment.

After the failed launch of Fresh & Easy was a reality, the company reflected on the reasons behind it. In retrospect, the research team revealed that coupons and special offers did come up a lot in their market research data. It was, however, regarded as unimportant.

The reason was cultural bias.

The British researchers were operating under assumptions that American consumers shopped similarly to the British ones.  

Step 4: Consider the implications

The skill of foresight is perhaps the most valuable part of critical thinking when it comes to business decisions.

This might feel like fortune telling at first but by applying past unbiased experience and knowledge, your predictive skills get better.

And they can do wonders for your career as well.

More than ever before, companies are looking for strategic leaders. Such leaders are able to look into the future and understand how the choices at present might affect the company in the future. 

Similar to the process of identifying biases, you need to consider what implications potential decisions might have for all parties involved.

  • Put yourself in the shoes of your customers, suppliers, or employees.
  • Try to evaluate how they might react in response to different scenarios. This will enable you to plan ahead better because you will know the possible downstream effects of your choices.  
  • If you feel stuck, try writing it out.

Researchers at Central Washington University discovered a significant increase in students’ ability to make their ideas more explicit and to evaluate new information more efficient after being assigned a writing exercise. Over the course of a full semester, students were asked to dedicate 50 min to answering long-form questions related to their studies.

Make sure your writing is as reflective as possible.

This means it’s characterized by responses and reflections on information, events or past experience instead of pure statements.

If you find yourself writing down statements and facts, try to apply the principle from step number 2 of asking why you are writing it down and how important it is.

Step 5: Think for yourself

Lastly, to become a great critical thinker you need to think for yourself.

As we pointed out earlier, research is very useful in order to understand all aspects of a problem you are working to solve and figure out all points of view any stakeholder might have.

However, don’t make the mistake of getting lost in other people’s work. Analyzing all the information available to you and producing original thoughts based on that is essential for successful critical thinking.

Don’t feel overwhelmed if you feel “green” in your field, and don’t underestimate your gut feeling. Even Einstein arrived at the famous E=mc2 equation without relying on other’s work.

Of course, not all of us can be Einsteins.

However, setting aside some time to reflect on the information you’ve learned can help you evaluate what is relevant to solving your problem and what is not.

Challenging other people’s work can feel intimidating and even scary, especially if you are new in your area. However, a field evolves and develops only when questions are asked and the status quo is challenged.

March 1, 2018