is critical thinking and how is it helping leaders make better decisions?
make decisions every day based on explicit assumptions and non-emotive,
latest economic crises highlighted a plethora of bad decisions, made by
well-educated leaders using the best tools and data available. As these
decisions are analysed and criticised, an alternative school of thought is
becoming mainstream. Both behavioural economics and neuroscience confer that
decision-making is, in fact, emotional, irrational and based on tacit
decision-makers are now turning to both technical and cognitive tools to guard
against making poor decisions. One such tool is critical thinking, an
indispensable management aid right up there with emotional intelligence.
thinking is neither creative nor strategic thinking; it is a way of striving
for the highest level of reasoning and judgment that lead to sound decision-making.
It is thinking about thinking. The critical thinking process involves 3 main
aware that mental biases exist
mental bias is a distortion in the way we perceive reality and process
information. We should all know how they affect our thinking in order to avoid
them and their consequences. Over 100 mental biases have been documented.
Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first introduced the idea of
mental biases, or mistakes, in 1972 and the latter was awarded a Nobel Prize in
2002 for this work. Here are three common mental biases:
effects: Packaging is a multibillion-dollar
industry because how an object is presented affects its desirability. How a
problem is framed or presented has been shown to have far reaching consequences
on our conclusions as well.
look at this sequence of numbers 5-4-9-1-7-10-3-2. 6 And 8 have been omitted.
Can you see where they belong? Tricky, isn’t it?
problem presented numerically, which makes you think in numbers. In fact, these
numbers are in alphabetical order, which is hard to see if you are in a numeric
frame of mind. Those trained in creative subjects and critical thinkers are
capable of purposefully changing their frame or perspective on a problem to
come up with better solutions, faster. Decision making tools that encourage
different points of view such as De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or Systems
Thinking help to avoid falling into such framing traps. However, decision
makers should acknowledge that their initial frame of mind may not be the only
one nor the best with which to tackle a problem.
bias is a systematic error where we look for, recall or interpret information
so that it confirms our own point of view. Perhaps you have your heart set on a
certain product that you research on the internet before buying. You may notice
that you gather more positive than negative reviews.
bias can lead to disastrous decisions, especially in organisational, military
and political contexts where leaders tend to surround themselves with
like-minded people rather than those who really challenge their decisions.
you ever signed up for a gym membership or timeshare and used it less than you
expected, or used a new credit card more than you promised yourself you would?
Have you ever been dead sure of an answer only to be surprised by an unexpected
outcome? Our inbuilt overconfidence allows us to triumph over many of life’s
setbacks but can have an adverse impact on the quality of our decision-making.
We can be overconfident in our abilities and fall in love with our decisions
when our ego is left unchecked.
Reduce biases that lead to suboptimal outcomes
that each of us makes mental mistakes is the first and most critical step in
the critical thinking process. Thereafter, the quality of our decision-making
can be significantly boosted with some simple steps.
- Look for evidence that tests your
ideas, not merely confirms them.
- Before dismissing negative feedback,
try to defend it.
- Actively seek out at least 2 contrary
opinions, if they aren’t forthcoming.
- Calibration is an effective way to keep
overconfidence in check. To calibrate your decision-making prowess, track the
results of every professional decision that you take. You will soon detect behavioural
patterns in both successes and failures.
steps are surprisingly hard to do. However, if you want to make the best
possible decisions, you will need to take the necessary steps to avoid mental
wisdom also leads to all sorts of decision-making evils. If the status quo or
other conventional thinking is an input in decision-making, it is seldom
challenged because it’s widely accepted. Rooting out any given facts in a
problem and challenging the assumptions underlying them may change the dynamics
and conclusions of the problem. Questioning popular thinking is uncomfortable
and requires one to make unpopular decisions, but for a critical thinker
popularity is not more important than sound judgment.
Using reflective thinking regularly
children fail, we comfort them with the time-tested phrase; “It’s okay to make
a mistake but learn from it so that you don’t repeat it.” When we succeed at
something no-one says; “That’s awesome, what did you learn from your success?”
Learning from successes is as important as learning from failures. Reflecting
on and learning from our successes helps us identify areas of positive
deviance. This shows what worked and what we should do and not only avoid next
from other’s mistakes and successes is a risk-free way of becoming a better
thinker. However, we seldom explore other people’s foibles as they usually
happen in a context different to our own. Can a CEO in manufacturing learn from
the mistakes of a stockbroker or a politician? Yes. Whilst the outcome of the
error is indeed irrelevant for the CEO, the thought process and mental mistakes
involved are applicable in various decision-making contexts.
a critical thinker is much like learning a new language. We can read about it
extensively, but it’s only when we practice that we begin the process of
improving our thinking, our decision making and hence the quality of our
professional and personal lives.
is littered with disastrous decision-making. The build-up of the dotcom bubble
in the late 1990s showed symptoms of confirmation bias and herd behaviour. Many
investors ignored information showing an impending downturn in stock valuations
as these contradicted their own blue-sky assessments. In the build up to the
war on terror, George Bush seemed to seek out evidence only in support of his
theory on Iraq. Critical thinking could have changed the course of history in
stunning success of critical thinking comes from a construction materials company
in Watsonville, California; Graniterock. They craved a reputation for
delighting their customers and in one smart strategy they changed the frame
within which their clients perceived them, reduced overconfidence from sales
and management staff, challenged conventional wisdom and forced immediate
calibration on their entire organisation. How? The following was printed on
their invoices: “If you are not satisfied for any reason, don’t pay us for it. Simply
scratch out the line item, write a brief note about the problem, and return a
copy of this invoice along with your check for the balance.”
was a radical and extremely successful policy that has changed over time, but
its premise still underlies their customer strategy today.
du Preez is an Adjunct Professor for
Critical Thinking at SP Jain School of Global Management and the author of ‘Think Smart, Work Smarter’
published by Marshall Cavendish 2011. She is also an international keynote
speaker and author on both critical thinking and leadership.