Leadership Matters: 10 Things That Stifle Critical Thinking

illustration of manager thinking critically and strategically
c. myers corporation

4 minutes

Here are five ways to overcome common stumbling blocks when it comes to critical thinking. defines critical thinking as disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence. It is foundational for good decision-making. What organization couldn’t use plenty of critical thinkers? But there are some common stumbling blocks and some key practices to avoid them.

10 Things that Stifle Critical Thinking

  1. Unclear objectives—lack of clarity around the purpose of the discussion, desired outcomes or the decision being made
  2. Hidden biases and assumptions—being unaware of these (which we all have), and therefore not considering their validity
  3. Not questioning others—deference to authority, taking things at face value, groupthink
  4. Not looking for unstated challenges and opportunities—assuming that everything will work out fine and that the necessary thinking has already been done
  5. Defensiveness—needing to be right
  6. Seeking input from those who won’t disagree—avoiding alternate opinions
  7. Inability to embrace change—not having an open mind, avoiding the discomfort of change
  8. Lack of information or misinformation—assuming all needed data/information has been supplied and that the data/information is right, not doing a reasonableness check
  9. Waiting until the last minute to make a decision—working with limited options due to time constraints
  10. Not assessing whether past decisions were good or not and why—no feedback loop to improve critical thinking in the future

5 Practices to Help Critical Thinking Flourish

  1. Seek clarity on the objective of the discussion or decision at hand. Ensure that the participants are clear on what you’re thinking critically about and why. Ask them to state their understanding of the desired outcomes of the discussion. This sounds incredibly simple yet is often misaligned. Clarity on the objective must occur before productive conversations can occur.
  2. Cultivate genuine curiosity. Participants need to believe that they have a responsibility and a right to fully understand, ask questions and question each other. Encourage creativity and practice “Why to the power of 5,” asking “Why?” at least 5 times to get to the root of the problem. This also applies to data and other types of information that have been supplied. Ensure it is fully understood by applying common sense and asking questions. Try approaching data and information as though there is a mistake that must be found.
  3. Surface biases and assumptions. Human brains are made to rely on shortcuts based on past experiences when full information isn’t available. The challenge is becoming aware of them so they can be examined. There are many books and articles written on this, but a simple way to start is to ask people to intentionally consider what assumptions and biases are at work that have not been stated.
  4. Authentically consider other options. There are usually multiple solutions available, and being open to those options and understanding the tradeoffs leads to better decisions. Debate is an excellent tool for creating an atmosphere that embraces challenges to ideas as a thought exercise rather than a personal attack. Have people debate in favor of an idea that is not their own. Being open to change and assuming there are better ways to achieve the objective are helpful mindsets.
  5. Blend data with instinct. Colin Powell’s famous 40/70 rule states that leaders need at least 40% of the available information to make a decision but not more than 70% because the opportunity may pass you by. Where data is lacking, we must blend data with instinct.

Building critical thinking skills takes practice. Some of the behaviors and mindsets that help critical thinking may not be typical within your organization. One way to approach that challenge is to start by creating working agreements that pertain only to the meeting or discussion at hand and ensuring everyone is on board at the start of the meeting. Example working agreements could include, “We must identify at least 4 solutions to our problem,” or “Everyone must ask ‘Why?’ at least once.” A leader can also help others think critically by ensuring objectives are clear and asking specific questions related to the above. Help your team start building critical thinking skills and reap the rewards with better decision making.

c. myers helps financial institution decision-makers uncover opportunities and continuously optimize their business models. Their depth and range of experience in linking strategy, talent, desired financial performance and successful execution enables them to work with their clients as strategic collaborators. They have the experience of working with over 600 financial institutions, including 200+ of those over $1 billion in assets. C. myers helps financial institutions think to differentiate and drive better decisions through strategic planning & business model optimizationstrategic solutions and implementationstrategic leadership developmentreal-time ALM and financial forecastingeducation, and thought leadership.

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