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Front Line Leadership Blog


Build Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills

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Critical thinking ranks highest in the most in-demand skills for job candidates, however these skills are often found to be lacking. A Wall Street Journal analysis of standardized test scores given to collegiate freshman and seniors at 200 colleges found that the average graduate (even from some of the most prestigious universities) show little or no improvement in critical thinking skills over the course of their four years in college. Similar statistics are found in the workplace. 

In a sea of managers who can’t agree on an exact definition and therefore benchmarks for critical thinking mixed with a host of sink-or-swim style managers, it’s no wonder clear instruction on critical thinking falls by the wayside in the workplace. To simplify critical thinking training, there’s a measurable four-phase approach that managers can use to identify, train, and progress their team.

Phase 1: Execute

Often this phase is full of your new hires and team members who haven’t been pushed to succeed in the past. During this phase, individuals tend to simply do exactly what you ask. No more and no less. Start small. Give small assignments with immediate deadlines. Ask them to explain what they did and why they chose to do it that way. Once they begin suggesting ways to improve their work and are able to complete all parts of their assignments on time, and at least close to your standard of quality, they will be ready to move on to phase 2.

Phase 2: Synthesize

During this phase, individuals learn to sort through a plethora of information to figure out what is important. This skill is one that grows with practice. To help people hone in on this skill, after a client call, ask them to share takeaways in a concise manner. If they struggle, lead them though exercises to learn how to limit their insights to the most important in a quick manner without preparation. Once someone can quickly identify and summarize only the important points briefly with regard to opportunity and/or growth, they are likely ready to move on to the next phase.

Phase 3: Recommend

This phase moves from the identifying portion of critical thinking into the recommending action portion. Once someone can actively recommend solutions (without first polling others) that are backed by strong reasoning after having considered alternatives, they are on their way to successfully completing this phase. How do they respond to potential downsides of their recommendations? Are they open to suggestions and feedback? If yes, they are ready to move on. If not, start this phase by requiring them to make recommendations before you share your opinion. Ask their rationale and alternatives considered. Then ask the potential downsides of their recommendation. This pushes them to flex their critical thinking muscles and grow. Once they can deliver a sound business recommendation with sound judgement on work that isn’t their own, move them on to phase 4.

Phase 4: Generate

To help individuals move through this phase, it often takes the act of modeling. Invite them to observe and participate in your personal generative process. This final phase is often the hardest for people to enter. It requires open-ended thinking which can be hard for people to learn to do. But, by inviting them to witness these skills firsthand and participate in the discussions, it will help them develop the necessary tools to succeed with critical thinking. Invite these individuals to keep a list of ideas for improving a project, department, or the company and ask them to routinely share those ideas with you. Seriously vet the ideas with them to prove it was more than just a practice exercise. This will engage them and encourage them to continue this type of thinking in the future.

Critical thinking is more than an innate gift. It’s a finely-honed tool when a mentor properly guides their team through these exercises to gain one of the most in-demand skills in any industry. Want to learn more about hands-on leadership? Contact us today to see how we can help you gain the skills needed to help your team succeed. Growth begins with great leadership and we grow great leaders.

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