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Question the Answers: Using Critical Thinking to Change Workplace Dynamics

October 27, 2011

“Heresy is another word for freedom of thought.” Graham Greene

I often hear people say, “We need more critical thinking in the world, we should be teaching it in schools.” I don’t disagree with those ideas. But I wonder if we understand how much change real critical thinking would bring – to our schools, to the workplace, to our cultures and to our personal lives.

I’m not an expert in the progress of pedagogy, but I suspect that the teaching of critical thinking isn’t at the top of most school lists in this “Age of Austerity” (at least for most). We don’t really understand critical thinking enough to know how much we struggle and suffer from a lack of it.  

Most corporations and institutions say they need innovation, creativity, sustainability and trust to compete in the 21st century.  They understand that the new worker is a knowledge worker and that continuous learning is the jewel in the crown of assets to get there. But I don’t think they really mean they want critical thinkers!

Critical thinkers ask questions. They must “live in the questions as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. To the critical mind, questions lead to more questions. Critical thinkers not only challenge the status quo, they shake it up. They turn the status quo on its head and always ask, “Is there another way?”  That’s not comfortable to those who have an “immunity” to change.

That’s  why it’s tough for most institutions and organizations to really embrace the full meaning and possibility of unleashing critical thinking within their cultures. While we’re in the grip of a powerful cultural meme that says that governments stifle progress and growth and businesses free it – neither are true.

Critical thinkers pose a threat to norms, to the safe and the orthodox. Critical thinkers toss the moneylenders out of the temple. Their very essence is to challenge atrophied practices and outdated assumptions.

For critical thinking to thrive, it must operate in an atmosphere of trust. Power politics, organizational and personal,  shut down free thinking and the honest exchange of ideas – and are the enemy of critical thought.

The Essence of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is essentially the ability to think about thinking. Most people don’t think about their thinking, and it’s not a skill many of us have acquired. In a results-driven culture, thinking about thinking feels passive. But developing the skills of a critical thinker is anything but passive. In its purest form, it requires the present and active involvement and engagement of the thinker in every experience.

In defining critical thinking many people get negatively hooked by the word – critical. The critical in the context of critical thinking doesn’t mean disapproval or judgment.  In fact, the skilled critical thinker needs to have the ability to think with great clarity and neutrality. The critical thinker is not without opinion, but has the ability to view experience from multiple perspectives.

Sharpening the Skills of Critical Thinking 

The classic core elements of critical thinking include: observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. How we understand and define these tools is important to the development of critical thinking.

  • Observation – I think of this as the constant development and refinement of our ability to not only be self-aware but to cultivate the neutral (non-judgmental) “witnessing” of our own experience of self and others. This is the foundational skill we use to build critical thought.
  • Challenging Beliefs and Norms – Norms form around comfort. While comfort may feel good, it can also be a refuge from change. Unexamined beliefs form major blind spots to critical thinking. We cannot discern the evidence we need to substantiate certain claims and assertions, if non-factual beliefs dominate our thinking.
  • Ask Deep and Engaging Questions – Questions are surely the crux of critical thinking, but learning to ask deeper and more engaging questions is the key. Most of us have been conditioned by rote learning and memorization and our questioning skills have been weakened in the process.
  • Brain Integration – One major cultural assumption that limits critical thinking is the idea that emotions are the enemy of reason. Rationality (the thinking we associate with the neo-cortical functions of our brain) is nearly always considered the Supreme ruler of critical thinking. Truth is we need a greater ability to integrate and balance both our so-called thinking brain and our feeling brain to maximize understanding and heighten experience. Familiarity with the information from our feeling brain invites intuitive and sensual experience into the equation.
  • Collaborative Thinking – Critical thinking is social thinking. Practices in all areas of culture, but especially in the workplace, continue to foster authoritarian, left-brain, hierarchical thinking processes. Collaborative thinking requires exceptional listening abilities and the willingness to let go of control in over-asserting our own positions.
  • Information and Learning – The critical thinker understands that learning is a continuous process and is actively seeking and open to new ideas and experiences. The critical thinker seeks out information not as a means to an end but to understand more about other people, their experiences and the larger world.
  • Becoming Literate in the Emotions that Support Critical ThoughtAll emotions are of value to the critical thinker, but some are particularly important to engage, promote and sustain critical thought. Courage, confidence, enthusiasm, excitement, fascination, passion, optimism, satisfaction, wonder, appreciation, empathy, compassion, acceptance, calm and curiosity – the great driver of critical thought.
  • Meta-CognitionA very spiffy term to describe the critical thinker’s automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand and control their own cognitive process. So – learning more about how we learn serves the critical thinker in their continuous path of growth.

Our need for critical thinking is greater today than ever before. We need to find a way to step outside of isolated and polarized thinking. We must learn to question the assumptions, information and behaviors that have led us to where we are now.

Most of us would agree that tepid reforms won’t change our workplaces or our culture. Critical thinkers challenge the safe, the comfortable and the inevitable. They are always going for ideas that have greater impact and depth. They make connections between things that appear on the surface as unrelated. They seek out possibilities even when problems seem insurmountable.

If we want to truly unleash the power of critical thinking, we’ll have to overcome the barriers of fear and passivity; entrenched and informal power arrangements; bias and conformity and the willingness to tolerate uncertainty.

It’s a tall order – are we ready?


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.


Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants


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8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 7:27 am

    Hey, this is nice post, some times people get uncomfortable if they their thoughts are questioned too much. But questioning is always good.

    I write on similar topics @


    • October 27, 2011 8:51 am

      Hi Suresh,

      Thanks for your comment. You are right, too much questioning can make certain people uncomfortable. That’s why it is important for the critical thinker to use their emotional awareness of others to guide them in choosing how and when to respectfully ask questions. It’s an art form as is listening. If it done right, it can be an invitation for others to share their thoughts – and feelings.

      PS I will check out your site.

  2. October 27, 2011 7:37 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful post that deserves wide readership.

    To your list of hurdles to overcome I’d propose adding: accepting being wrong as an opportunity to learn rather than a failure of some sort.

    Cheers – Andrew

    • October 27, 2011 8:43 am

      Hi Andrew,
      Definetely an important point to include. Add that to the common problem of not wanting to appear being wrong at work – which still plagues workplace relationships and “status.”

      Thanks for the appreciation and the comment!


  3. October 28, 2011 12:35 pm

    I am always provoked to think more deeply when I read your postings. As our local communities engage with big financial interests in an unfortunate debate over whether or not to permit a large coal shipping terminal I am reminded daily of just how limited the interest is truly in critical thinking and how much we could benefit from even a little bit more.

    Thanks for the clarity of your writing and the immediacy of connection to our daily lives, whether or not at work.

    • October 28, 2011 1:02 pm

      Hi Mike,

      Please to see your comment. I think we’re all called for our personal and collective well-being to deepen our critical thinking abilities. And as I said in the post, although we hear the cry for more critical thinking, the implications for shaking up the status quo of anything (a relationship, a family, a department, a city) are significant. In a sense, thinking critical is a real wake up call.

      Thank you for your appreciation and support – and I wish you and your community the best thinking (and actions) possible in your efforts to protect it.

      PS. readers: check out Mike’s excellent blog

  4. October 28, 2011 1:50 pm

    Great post…as usual! Critical thinking is all about neuronal firing. Basic quantum physics addresses the power of the observer on the outcome, or results. The brain is a quantum environment. So….the kinds of questions we ask will affect neuronal firing, which if repeated will create new neural circuits…”wala” new ways of thinking.


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