Should we “be more Vulcan”?
By Tracy West
Is the art of critical thinking a dying concept? We use terms like ‘evidence-based management’ and ‘critical analysis’ but do we really apply these concepts appropriately and in real time? Given the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world in which organisations currently operate, surely it makes sense to apply critical thinking to help us reach sound, reasoned, appropriate business decisions.
This week, I have been running Strategic Management sessions at the University of Warwick – trying to encourage future leaders to think in a reasoned manner. Whilst the students clearly engage with the subject matter from a theoretical perspective, I have observed that they sometimes struggle to apply this knowledge.
Given their limited work experience (on average), many of them have not had much opportunity to genuinely problem-solve, that is, to work their way through challenging situations, and come up with sensible, practical options. Deploying a solid level of critical thinking in this way is different from pure academic understanding. Nevertheless, it is a crucial skill for the workplace and one that needs sharper focus in the academic syllabus, and on organisational training schemes for new recruits.
At work, we often find ourselves in situations where we do not have complete information. As human beings, many of us can be mentally lazy. Therefore, rather than commencing the disciplined and challenging process of obtaining the partial data that is available, and then identifying and evaluating possible options, we subconsciously plug the gaps with semi-relevant stuff that is at hand, has meaning for us, and gives us a level of comfort. When we do this, of course, we welcome in all sorts of biases and potentially unhelpful tendencies, leading to decisions that feel good, but may be flawed.
Developing the ability of our future leaders (and ourselves) to step back, ask the right questions, objectively analyse situations, identify erroneous assumptions, and reach balanced, evidence-led conclusions is hugely important. It requires effort, discipline and practice to hone these skills.
As today’s leaders, we should be both role-model and coach, demonstrating the benefits of critical thinking whilst helping our teams embed this objective approach in their own culture. Such a rational model of thinking, when combined with people-focus and deep compassion, can help us move purposefully towards a brighter future. Live long and prosper.
"Very few really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justification, explanations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner."
(Spoken by the Vampire Marius in Ann Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat – Ballantine Books. New York, NY. 1985)