What are some of the key characteristics of successful teams charged with planning and decision-making responsibilities? A friend and former college classmate who worked for some years as a VP of Marketing for Microsoft once told me about working with Bill Gates. “He’s super smart” he said, “in our product marketing team meetings he could be pretty brutal.” He went on to elaborate further; “you’ve got to be totally prepared; he asks a lot of tough questions and he’s quick to call bull shit.” What Gates was doing was challenging assumptions, a key ingredient of critical thinking.
When I am asked about my own career and how I accomplished certain objectives I’m usually quick to focus on listening and logic – two of the key elements of critical thinking. Most of the key insights that led the way to success for me have started with listening to others. Effective listening, often called “active listening” is in surprisingly short supply in most team interactions. Our multi-tasking abilities tend to make it difficult to really focus and fully comprehend what is being said. In conversation we typically speak around 100 words per minute, far below our brain’s capacity to comprehend up to 500 words per minute. This causes our thoughts to wander. Listeners will quickly start to focus on their own ideas and what they are going to say next instead of focusing on understanding what others are saying. listeners minds are functioning like a sieve with the finer points often slipping through, not being comprehended and thoroughly processed. Valuable nuggets are lost and faulty reasoning follows.
In my experience most managers are too quick to accept the status quo with regard to the critical thinking skills and processes of their team members. It’s remarkable to see how often teams let fallacious arguments pass. Two things that leaders can do to help improve their team’s critical thinking skills and decision-making processes include facilitation and training.
Team leaders should be sure to facilitate effective critical thinking processes with their teams. They should carry out the Gates role, listen carefully and challenge assumptions. More to the point, in order to develop these skills among teammates leaders should challenge their team members to participate and respond with well-reasoned input as planning and decision-making processes are being carried out. Leaders should also look for training opportunities to help develop critical thinking skills among team members. Critical thinking, particularly the practice of logic, cannot be readily taught. Its more of a skill that is acquired through practice.
Training in critical thinking skills are not among the more commonly thought of staff development investments. Since the effective use of logical thinking process is more of a training exercise, there are fun and inexpensive ways to promote the skill among staff members. Critical thinking skills are best honed through practice and exercises that can be done independently. There are some good online resources that can be helpful in tuning up critical thinking skills.
IndiaBix is a site for interview and test preparation. They have a good series of logical reasoning quizzes that can be useful to demonstrate the challenges of critical thinking and provide a good crop of logical reasoning exercises.
This article by Michael Taft, author of DeconstructingYourself – Mindfulness Meditation for Modern Mutants is a good short article on active listening.
This University of Hong Kong’s Philosophy department’s Critical Thinking Web project, is an open courseware on site on critical thinking, logic, and creativity. The site has teaching and training modules for meaning, argument, logic, science, values, strategy and fallacies as well as links to other useful resources.