The Critical Thinking Skills Employers Think They Want…And the Ones They Actually Need

Start with the inverse: you would never want someone on your team who lacks critical thinking skills.

And yet, the very fact that employers are putting critical thinking in job descriptions along with field-specific competencies implies that they think it’s something special that not everyone has. In fact, it’s so special that a recent study found that fewer than one-third of employers believe that university graduates have the critical thinking skills to succeed in the workplace, which means that either these skills need to be acquired on the job or they are going to be extinct.

The trouble is that most companies don’t know what to look for when they select project teams and make hires, and also don’t know how to nurture critical thinking skills.

An upcoming study is looking at critical thinking as a function of six general skills, which fits many common conceptions of the construct:

  • Problem-Solving — applying some version of the scientific method
  • Analysis — considering the parts relative to the whole and vice versa
  • Creative Thinking — generating novel and useful ideas
  • Interpretation — explaining and defining constructs
  • Evaluation — assessing significance
  • Reasoning — applying logic and/or inference to draw conclusions

While this is a great start, and certainly an important definition of critical thinking skills, something more is needed. Here’s why:

  • Problem-Solving — presumes you know what the problem is, and/or that you can find it
  • Analysis — presumes you can identify which wholes are made of which parts
  • Creative Thinking — presumes you know what has been done and what would be useful
  • Interpretation — presumes you are familiar with the constructs
  • Evaluation — presumes you have the requisite experience to know what something’s worth
  • Reasoning — presumes you know enough to draw reasonable inferences and conclusions

It’s one thing to have critical thinking skills, and quite another to have the experience, maturity, and worldliness to use them effectively and appropriately. The baseline of having critical thinking skills is a necessary-but-not-sufficient criterion for being an effective project team participant, but what else is needed?

There are four demonstrable characteristics that reflect the right level of development to be a key team member, and this is how you know a potential employee is RIPE:

  • Resilience — they have bounced back from failure and learned from mistakes
  • Initiative — they have independently figured out what needed to be done and then did it
  • Professionalism — they have demonstrated culturally-appropriate behavior in a range of business contexts
  • Endurance — they have stayed on task despite challenges

All of these are about knowing when and how to apply critical thinking skills, or critically thinking about critical thinking, and are consistent with what the Foundation for Critical Thinking (FCT) calls affective strategies (as opposed to what FCT calls “macro” and “micro” strategies, which tend to group under one of the six items above). These effectively amount to having the ability to know yourself and think for yourself, but also to question yourself so that you can have a clear idea of when you are and are not on the right track.

Pragmatically, the difference between an ineffective team member and a RIPE one is whether they can provide examples of the criteria above and/or answer the following four questions with correct action:

  • When should an employee just follow orders, and when should (s)he use his/her judgment?
  • When should an employee ask for orders, and when should (s)he make an educated guess about what to do?
  • When should an employee ask for help on a challenging task, and when should (s)he blunder through it?
  • When should an employee push back when being told (s)he has erred, and when should (s)he just accept responsibility and apologize?

The last piece to the puzzle is how employees can develop the requisite RIPEness to have good judgment in the workplace. In this, it’s important to remember that good judgment almost always comes from having to resolve multiple instances of bad judgment. And, given the degree of customization that companies are needing to create today, higher levels of good judgment are needed, and that necessarily means there must be more tolerance for mistakes.

Thus, a key move for employers is to be tolerant of error and failure. Getting high value and creativity out of any employee requires allowances for taking calculated risks, making inferences, trying new avenues, and providing a unique perspective that may run counter to the establishment (and that’s incredibly uncomfortable!). Anything that has the potential to disrupt the security of the status quo requires a level of tolerance, and companies need to start building that in from the C-suite to the front lines (here’s some advice). Once they do, they will not only be more innovative companies, but also have employees with the RIPEness, judgment, and discretion to take smart risks that can lead to new opportunities.

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