Critical thinking: An essential skill in the modern workplace

Socrates-statue

The Future of Jobs Report (pdf) by the World Economic Forum suggests that by 2020, more than a third of the core skill sets in most job categories will be comprised of skills that are not considered essential today. The Forum surveyed 350 chief human resources and strategy officers across 9 industries in 15 of the world’s biggest economies to generate this report and indicates that one of the top skills that will reshape the landscape of modern workplaces is critical thinking (under the Basic Process Skills category).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is introducing us to advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and genomics. All these changes and automations are transforming the ways we live and work. The jobs that are important to us today are disappearing and jobs that we don’t even think of today are expected to become standard in workplaces in the near future.

What is important is that we will need to align our skill set to keep pace with the globally connected world. So, we should plan to invest our time in developing the analytical thinking skills that we will need in the future.

What is critical thinking and who is a critical thinker?

For over 2500 years, different schools of thought have been put forward to define the term “critical thinking.” Some define it as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence” where another defines it asanalytical thinking which underlies all rational discourse and enquiry and that is characterized by a meticulous and rigorous approach.”

In my own words, a critical thinker is a person who can:

  • Put forward innovative ideas and understand the probable connections between them, while identifying the impartial outcome of each individual idea
  • Solve complex problems after employing logic and reasoning
  • Evaluate arguments and justify and deduce consequences from their own beliefs and values
  • Improve their thinking by studying their strengths and weaknesses and learning regularly

Many among us (in fact, all of us at one time or another) think irrationally, with our thinking process being distorted, prejudiced by our prior knowledge, social and cultural beliefs, and sense of self. We are often uncomfortable in accepting others’ opinions/beliefs just like that and seldom do we make efforts to turn our careless thinking into meticulous opinions. As a result, we overlook opportunities that could have helped us enhance our intellectual growth.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, first concentrates on analyzing and integrating the complex flow of information from various resources and then, on evaluating the available evidence. This type of thinking lets us cultivate excellence and necessitates the self-improvement that may come to us by practicing skills such as observation, interpretation, deduction, assessment and explanation.

Characteristics of critical thinking include:

Rationality – This practice expects us to rely on logical reasoning rather than on our emotions. We are expected to look for evidence that supports our logic and provide precise explanations. When we are confused, we should ask relevant questions, and not just assume.

Self-awareness – Before making decisions, we should collect all the pros and cons of the given situation, while also recognizing our own motives, presumptions and prejudices.

Honesty – To avoid any modes of self-deception, we should focus on recognizing any emotional pressures or disappointments that we may have.

Open-mindedness – This feature demands that we consider the best possible solution to the problem only after evaluating all reasonable conclusions. It asks us to put away our pride and be open to different hypotheses and alternative perspectives put forth by others, if they better explain the situation.

Discipline – It is important to create disciplined thinking patterns that are not manipulated or irrational, but are meticulous.

So, how important is it to enhance this modern workplace skill?

Many popular studies have confirmed that employers rate process skills like critical thinking as a growing part of the core skills requirements for many job families including:

  • Manufacturing and production
  • Business and financial operations
  • Computer and mathematical
  • Management
  • Architecture and engineering
  • Office and administrative

In the Future Work Skills Report (pdf), American computer philosophy writer, computer scientist and visual artist Jaron Lanier points out, “As we renegotiate the human/machine division of labor in the next decade, critical thinking and sense-making will emerge as a skill workers increasingly need to capitalize on.” The same report highlights that educational institutions at primary, secondary and post-secondary levels must focus on developing skills such as critical thinking, social intelligence and cross-cultural competency.

Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in his book, The Global Achievement Gap, pronounces the Seven Survival Skills for the future wherein critical thinking is the most essential.

According to a 2015 video report by Pearson North America, almost 70% of employers across the globe accept that they assess candidates’ critical thinking skills during the selection process and then, around 49% of employers evaluate their current employees’ critical thinking skills as average or below average. They all agree that good decision making requires an ability to assess relevant information, ask the correct questions and pick out reliable facts, which certainly are the basics of critical thinking.

How can we think critically?

Critical thinking focuses on an ancient Greek ideal of “living an examined life.” By practicing it, we can examine the quality of an argument, including its reasons, assumptions and evidence, as well as the degree to which it supports the conclusion. This will assist us in constructing our own innovative arguments that are supported only by carefully considered perspectives.

Using the simple example of working on a project for a client, before we reach any conclusion, we would answer the following questions honestly:

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • What are we trying to achieve and how can we achieve it?
  • What probable issues or problems could arise while working on the project? What could the solutions to those problems be?
  • What resources are currently available to us and how can we enhance them, if needed?
  • Is our thinking justified and in sync with the client’s thinking?
  • How can we justify our viewpoints?
  • What are the alternative perspectives available to us? How can we put those to use to deliver a better project?

Honest answers to these questions will enable us to evaluate how capably each analysis meets our needs. When we willfully analyze the facts — and understand their uncovered meanings and investigate the evidence — then we make meticulous decisions, which is what critical thinking is all about. Facts may be facts, but how we interpret them may vary, so practicing critical thinking is important not only within a specific organization or job category but anywhere in life.


Ruby Tyagi headshotRuby Tyagi is a technical author at DXC Technology where she focuses on designing and developing technical communication documents and trainer presentations for enterprise insurance software, third-party applications, and London market insurance business messaging for insurance software professionals. For more than a decade, she has been (guest) blogging for different platforms while also running her own WordPress blog, where she shares her short stories and poems.

Comments

  1. Michael Conlin says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. I might offer two additional thoughts about critical thinkers. First, they are aware of the limits of their information in terms of its completeness, accuracy, and applicability to the question at hand. Second, they have the courage to proceed anyway, not despite those limits but rather in an effort to overcome them. At some level, critical thinking is akin to a Research and Development project in
    pursuit of useful insights.

    Like

    • Ruby Tyagi says:

      Thank you so much Michael Conlin for reading and liking the article and certainly, for sharing your insightful comment.

      Like

  2. Nice article Ruby. I think asking questions upfront while evaluating options during the critical thinking phase is an another factor which can further refine your overall thought process.

    Like

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