Do you really want a workforce of critical thinkers?
Alex Wright, March 20, 2017
Is having a workforce full of critical thinkers an impossible dream – or a nightmare to be avoided?
Most MBA programmes promise their prospective students that during their studies their capacity to think critically will be developed. In the UK, the Quality Assurance Association (the body charged with accrediting MBA degrees) stipulates that MBA graduates should be able to “think critically... [this means demonstrating] the capability to identify assumptions, evaluate statements in terms of evidence, detect false logic or reasoning, identify implicit values, define terms adequately and generalise appropriately.” And yet, thinking critically is notoriously difficult for students to demonstrate and for employers to harness.
While you would be hard-pressed to find any academic who didn’t think students developing their critical qualities is a key responsibility for business schools to develop, I’m not so sure the same can be said of employers and HR professionals. I have a suspicion that not all employers want their employees to be critical thinkers; or if they do, they do not want them to be critical thinkers all of the time.
The main reason why for some employers a staff body thinking critically about their work could be a nightmare rather than a dream relates to how we regard the term ‘critical’.
Critical does not necessarily mean negative
While in common use, we tend to associate ‘critical’ solely with negative or dismissive intent; this is not how it is seen in academic circles. Critical in the way it is used in the phrase ‘critical thinking’ should not be exclusively associated with negativism. The origin of the word can be traced to the Greek kritḗs meaning ‘judge,’ which in turn produced kritikós ‘able to make judgements’; this came to be used as a noun, ‘one who makes judgements,’ which passed via the Latin criticus into English.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines critical along the same lines, seeing it as ‘given to judging’ and the person who is criticising, the critic, as ‘a person who pronounces judgement’. A judgement, of course, can take many forms and is neither inherently positive or negative.
The overwhelmingly negative way ‘critical’ is perceived is not consistent with either the origin of the word, or the current definition and yet it has taken hold and is a significant barrier to remove if critical thinking in our workplaces is to develop. Unfortunately, the stress on judgement serves us little better. In everyday interactions we are cautioned that we ‘mustn’t judge’ as to do so is seen to be in some way disrespectful. However, if we associate critical thinking with the act of judging, which we need to do when we are engaged in decision making, for example, we can begin to frame critical thinking and criticality more generally in positive terms.
Critical thinking, at one level then, is focused on improving judgement, which in turn can improve what and how decisions are made in an organisation. How is this achieved? It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking information is built upon. This means that productive critical thinkers are skilled at selecting data and analysing that data so that better decisions are made. This level of critical thinking, based on specific decision-making, will be quite easy for HR managers to accept and support, I suspect. But this is not the whole picture and is only part of the story. Once staff have been encouraged to think critically it is difficult to stop thinking critically, so it will not just be specific decisions that will be critically engaged with; everyday interactions will also be the subject of critical scrutiny.
For most who develop the skills of critical thinking, it is not something that can be turned off and on; it becomes part of who they are. This can manifest in a number of ways. One way that can be hard to accommodate is a more critical appreciation of words and terms in common usage in organisations, but which are not universally accepted, although those that use them may act as if they are. These words have a rhetorical quality, they persuade and convince because they are associated with truth, and yet, they often are used inappropriately, when we are talking about interpretation and sense-making, not truth. Here are a few to consider:
- Algorithm – popular at the moment, used as a way of suggesting data has been created through some scientific process that is somehow unquestionable
- Scientific – often used in everyday use, when those that use it have little comprehension of what it actually means; but hey, it sounds authoritative
- Evidence-based – what is meant by evidence in this context, how is it collected, when, by whom, what are the assumptions that underpin its collection, what are the claims made for it? To claim an evidence-based is not in itself an assurance of truth, but is frequently used to assert one
- Robust and rigorous – (a personal favourite of mine) often heard in the phrase “robust data, rigorously analysed,” which seems to me very similar to the phrase “data analysed,” but through adding the adjectives ‘robust’ and ‘rigorous’ it suddenly takes on greater authority and legitimacy and consequently becomes more difficult to challenge
A capacity to think critically among a staff group will make some things that are at the moment far too easy more difficult. I argue that this is a good thing. It should be made more difficult for organisations to peddle ideas and initiatives that do not bear close scrutiny. To do so might mean that senior managers concentrate more on their effective stewardship of organisations than on the latest fads and fashions.
What would it be like to work in organisation where staff were encouraged to think critically about what they encounter? I have no data on this, but I have feeling it could be a very rewarding place to work. At a practical level, I think such an organisation would become:
- Better at framing problems
- Better at solving problems
- Better at handling data
- Better at understanding evidence
- Better at reflecting in/on action
- Better at communicating
- Better at decision making
- Better at becoming more self-aware
- Better at enabling staff to experience greater job satisfaction
The above, of course, are not truths and I do not present them as such. They are what I feel a workforce of critical thinkers is capable of. All I need to do now is to undertake some research on the issue.
Alex Wright is senior lecturer in strategic management at The Open University Business School