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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

It's Time to Bring Back Critical Thinking

Just when it is needed most, critical thinking has taken a backseat to other responsibilities.

The problem with too much information

For most of the time I was leading healthcare organizations, the issue of critical thinking was not a top priority for most of my peers (including me). We tended to use a broad set of information sources. We trusted them as sources of truth and in the rare instance when we found that we were given wrong information, it was up to that source to earn back our trust.

Times have changed. Yes, the old reliables are still available as good sources, such as Becker’s, ACHE, the Aspen Institute, and HBR. The problem is that competitors, insurers, doctors and many of the other people we rely on are using ever-multiplying and sometimes questionable sources of information.

This is especially true when social media is a key source for people around the world. We have long been encouraged to read broadly and deeply, but now we have an added responsibility to make judgements about the legitimacy of the information we consume and the validity of the source – a responsibility we are often dangerously unaware of.

Because of this phenomenon, we as leaders need to add to our existing toolbox of:

  • Mission

  • Vision

  • Values

  • Strategy

  • Execution

And practice teaching and critical thinking. I have seen many of my mentors practice critical thinking, setting them apart from other leaders and supporting their success.

How to teach critical thinking

In his book, Quiet Leadership, David Rock proposes that the skill of thinking must be taught and the old approach of problem resolution as a starting point is becoming obsolete.

Neuroscience research has shown how our neuro pathways are formed by our experiences, so our approach to problems over time becomes “baked in.” The same is true for those we lead. The process of building new neuro pathways is very difficult; it’s much easier to fall back on what we have previously experienced.

Rock says there are five key steps to helping people use thinking to build new approaches and transform their performance:

  • Let them do all the thinking

  • Focus on solutions

  • Remember to stretch

  • Accentuate the positive

  • Put process before content

This first step is by far the most critical, since completing the other steps without addressing thinking severely limits a leader’s opportunities to transform performance.

In order to help the people we lead grow over time, we must help them think in ways that are new to them. While self-directed learning may not be the right approach for everyone, it is highly effective for those with high potential: people you hired because they can think for themselves and are willing to learn.

A self-directed learning approach depends on the individual’s willingness and ability to participate in a critical thinking process. Depending on that level of ability, a leader can choose one of three mentorship approaches:

  1. Encourage the individual to come up with an answer in conversation. Ask them guiding questions such as: Do you want to talk through this issue with me? Tell me how you have thought about this so far.

  2. Encourage the individual to go find the answer themselves. Ask guiding questions such as: Would you like some time to think further about this? You might benefit from finding some alternative sources of information.

  3. Provide the answer in a way that aligns with the individual’s way of thinking. For this approach, you’ll want to ask for consent before sharing an answer, to ensure they’ve had the chance to find it on their own. For example, you’d ask: I have some information that may be helpful for you; would you like to hear it?

Better thinkers, better leaders

I learned about these approaches through my training to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC). We learned to:

  • listen at three different levels

  • coach the person, not the problem

  • dance toward the insight

  • ask questions rather than provide immediate answers

  • always ask open-ended questions

  • acknowledge progress and provide positive reinforcement

When a leader is able to not only practice critical thinking themselves, but teach those they lead to do the same, they can achieve major transformations in performance.

A mentor and friend of mine once said that thinking is a real strategic advantage because so few people do it. Be one of the few who do it, because better thinkers make better leaders. Especially now.

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