Critical Thinking

As I continue my dive into the world of academia, I’ve discovered a number of “buzzwords.” One of those buzzwords (buzz phrases?) is “critical thinking.”¬† I’m sure I heard “critical thinking” at least three times yesterday. From one speaker.

As a director of an office that has employees, and as someone who has taught university-level courses, one of the things that I try to instill is the freedom for students and workers to think critically. I’d prefer that students and workers not be passive recipients of information, but actually do something with that information, typically, by asking questions: What are the implications of this decision? What can go wrong? What can go right? How can this decision affect others?

The Harvard Business Review recently published a study by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats where they interviewed managers about their needs. According to Gino and Staats, managers say that they¬†“need employees who can think, not just follow orders.”

Why do they need these types of workers, people who can do something with information besides simply what the manager tells them to do?

Because the world is “changing to quickly to predict customers’ demands” and the only way to thrive (or even survive) is to “find workers who can co-create value with customers and constantly improve operations”.

Gino and Staats go on to suggest ways to change organizations so that workers bring their hands and heads to work. They conclude that businesses need to design jobs to give workers ownership of how they perform tasks, ownership of their identity, and ownership of their time.

In a sense, we need our workers to have the characteristics of what the law calls independent contractors. Independent contractors use their own tools and equipment and determine how the project will be completed. The employer gets to determine what will be done. The analysis can be more nuanced, but you get the point.

We do this a lot at our office. We ask “what do we want the outcome of this project to be” and then let our student assistants determine how to get there. The level of creativity and ownership is compelling, even with our small office. Of course their are boundaries that need to be observed, whether imposed by time, law, safety, or regulation, but operating within the space allowed can be a lot of fun. Gino and Staats suggest that pushing ownership to the worker’s level improves productivity and worker happiness.

Their conclusion: operations of the future need to be adaptable and dynamic.

What are your thoughts? Is critical thinking an important characteristic? If so, how do you teach it? How do you create a community of critical thinkers?