VUCA is an acronym that is now well established as a description for the business world that we currently operate in. In a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, there is no going back to the familiar and predictable world prior to the global financial crisis of 2008. This is the “New Normal”, and while certain Leadership skills and characteristics continue to be relevant, if we are going to thrive going into the 2020’s we need a new skill set.

In order to achieve different outcomes, organizations are required to do things that they haven’t done before. Thinking drives behaviour and behaviour drives results and so the big question is, what kind of thinking or re-thinking is required by leaders today?

According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, Critical thinking, Complex problem solving, and creative thinking skills are going to be the most important skills for the future of work. The alarming thing for organizations though is that based on a 2016 University of Washington study of over 1600 students from 10 U.S colleges, more than 70 % of participants said that University did little to help them develop critical thinking skills

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to think rationally and clearly about what to do and what to believe. A person with great critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • underst and the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

Characteristics of critical thinkers

1. They always start with the premise that they may be wrong and are open to their mind being changed.

This kind of thinking requires a great deal of intellectual humility. It is the ability to acknowledge your flaws and to see your positive attributes in an accurate way. It is a willingness to stretch and open your mind, to be open to other’s viewpoints, to acknowledge when you may be wrong. It is the willingness to ruthlessly challenge your beliefs when necessary. Too many of us engage with others whilst already clinging to the idea that we are right. Key question: Are there any sacred cows in your thinking? Are there any ideas or beliefs that are not open to being challenged?

2. Curiosity.

Curiosity is a key trait of many successful thinkers. Being inquisitive and interested in the world around us and the people around us is a hallmark of critical thinkers. Curious people don’t take everything at face value and will often ask why something is the way it is. Curiosity forces us to keep an open mind and is a starting point for being a life-long learner.

3. Self-Awareness.

This is where we are aware of our thinking. It is often called meta-cognition and is where we have the ability to think about the way we think. We need this level of introspection so that we are aware of how alert and attentive we are, how “present” we are. It puts us in a position to underst and our biases and also to underst and our emotional states and those of others.

4. Objectivity.

Critical thinkers have the ability to stay as objective as possible when looking at a situation or information. They do not let their own emotions or those of others cloud their judgement. They focus on the facts and the scientific evaluation of the information in front of them. We are all heavily influenced by our life experiences, our viewpoints and the mental models that we operate from. The first step in objectivity is being aware of our biases and looking at an issue dispassionately. When we are able to remove ourselves from a situation, we are able to analyse it more thoroughly.

5. Identifying our biases.

Critical thinkers challenge themselves to identify the evidence that forms their belief systems and whether the source of their beliefs is credible. Doing this will help us to underst and our biases and to question our pre-conceived notions. This is an important step in being aware of how our biases intrude on our thinking and also to recognise if the information is skewed in any particular direction. When we look at information, it’s important to ask if the information benefits anyone or if the source of the information has an agenda. Does the source leave out any information or evidence that doesn’t support its claims or beliefs?

6. Compassion and empathy.

We should follow the advice given in Stephen Covey’s excellent book “The 7 habits of highly effective people” – Seek first to underst and and then to be understood. This is the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s position, to genuinely try and underst and their mental mind map or their perspective. It’s the ability to truly listen and to listen with the intention of underst anding and not merely so that we can respond or as a means to develop our come-back response.

Without compassion, we would view all information and situations from the cold, heartless, scientific facts and data. It would be easy to allow our cynicism to become toxic and to become suspicious of everything we look at. To be a good critical thinker we must always be aware of the human element. It’s not all about the data and facts, it’s about using the information to collaborate more effectively and to make the right decisions.

7. Be willing to challenge the status quo.

Critical thinking means questioning long-established business practices and refusing to adhere to traditional methods simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. Critical thinkers are looking for smart, thoughtful answers and methods that consider all the current and relevant information and practices available. Their willingness to challenge the status quo may seem controversial, but it’s an essential part of the creative and innovative mind of a critical thinker.

8. Be aware of common thinking errors.

Critical thinkers don’t allow their logic and reasoning to become clouded by illusions and misconceptions. They are aware of common logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that often creep into arguments and debates. Some common errors in thinking include:

Circular reasoning, in which the premise of an argument or a conclusion is used as support for the argument itself.

Cognitive shortcut bias, in which you stubbornly stick to a favoured view or argument when other more effective possibilities or explanations exist.

Confusing correlation with causation. In other words, asserting that when two things happen together, one causes the other. Without direct evidence, this assumption isn’t justified.

9. Creative thinking.

There is often a misconception that critical thinkers cannot be creative thinkers. To come up with a creative solution to a problem involves not just having new ideas. It must also be the case that the new ideas being generated are useful and relevant to the task at h and. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones and modifying them if necessary. Critical thinkers are open to experimenting with different methods and considering different viewpoints.

Critical thinking is an essential skill for the adaptive leader and also for the future-focused leader. If you want to develop your critical thinking skills and those of your team, you may want to contact us regarding our newly developed adaptive leadership program where we look at critical thinking.

Eddie Botes