Critical thinking seems to be a vanishing skillset. As a leader, I’ve often watched people on my team spinning their wheels—physically and mentally. Things are moving, but despite their best efforts, they aren’t getting anywhere.
That’s because they are doing without thinking.
We can define critical thinking as when you “question, analyze, interpret, evaluate, and make a judgment about what you read, hear, say, or write. … Good critical thinking is about making reliable judgments based on reliable information.”
Before heading down any path or rabbit hole—STOP. Think. Ask yourself why you are making the decisions you are; how your current path is contributing to the big picture. And if you don’t have a big picture and you are just doing, then take time to zoom out and contemplate what you really need to accomplish.
Far too often in business I have seen those “Flavor of the Month” sales leaders who, when sales get off-track, throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. They have no plan. They have no why for their decisions, no big picture. Instead, decisions are made without data, without analyzing, and without facts. When choices made in the dark those spinning wheels are a lot more likely to drive you into a ditch.
The elements I consider essential to critical thinking include:
- Gathering information and data
- Analyzing what you have discovered
- Regrouping and strategizing based on your new perspective
- Big picture thinking on moving forward
I have had, throughout my career, several assistants—most of them women. I hired each of them because I believed in them and their talents. Once they are acclimated to their positions, I have sent them as my proxy to various meetings. I remember one time, my assistant called me and said she was very nervous. “I don’t know what to say, Puja.”
But I had given her all the tools to succeed. Winging it is antithetical to critical thinking. In addition to an outline of how to do the presentation, I gave her this pep talk: “Listen, I need you to get off this phone, and I need you to do some critical thinking about what you should say based on our discussion and the data. And then you can do it.”
And she did. Just like I knew she could.
Throughout my leadership career, team members have asked me, “Puja, what should I do?”
My response is always: “What do you think you should do?” It’s that ability to critically think that many people do not have or don’t cultivate enough. As a leader, I want my team to be full of critical thinkers.
I don’t just espouse this philosophy. I live it, and I have my team live it too. I wake up an hour earlier than I have to so I can have that time to strategize, think, and get centered. I insist people on my team take “think days.” They need to go do something that is not work-related—something that energizes them. Then they use that energy and invariably it releases the kind of creativity, problem solving, and inspiration to get their wheels unstuck.
Critical thinking is the twenty-first century skill we all need.