Critical Thinking or Criticism Thinking?

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Do you criticise decisions or ideas from your colleagues, or do you employ critical thinking techniques to test, or challenge ideas to establish a solid foundation of truth before making a judgement?

It may seem a simple question.

Obviously, we stress test ideas and suggestions, we don’t just take things on face value in the workplace, but one of the challenges I see when working with organisations around the world is a growing tendency to confuse criticism for critical thinking.  This results in an environment constrained by fear of being ridiculed and lacking creativity and new ways of working.

Critical thinking is an important part of our business world and we should always question to understand, however, when that questioning becomes “fault finding” or overtly personal then we have strayed from the idea of finding a positive outcome and drifted into the realms of “blame” and  “posturing”, and in the process, damaged our relationships and created a personal brand that is less than favourable.

So how do we know we are doing it, and more importantly, how do we maintain our balance so that we can achieve a positive outcome, whilst maintaining strong relationships?

The truth is we need to be more self-aware of our inner dialogue, as well as our external conversation.  By this I mean, ask yourself… “why am I asking these questions” and “why am I saying this?”  Understand your inner motives; are you scoring points or trying to belittle someone because you have a grudge with them; or have you simply fallen into the habit of challenging someone who you believe has nothing to contribute?

Now this may all be happening at a subconscious level, you may not know you have these feelings about this person until you stop and think.

It still surprises me when working with individuals at all levels in an organisation how little they know of their own motivations, or how dishonest they are with themselves about their feelings about colleagues.  I often hear the phrase… “well he always comes up with daft ideas…” or “she never does her research before presenting her thoughts…”.  This tells me you have created a “script memory” about that person and all you are doing is playing the script out in your mind rather than listening to the individual in the moment and evaluating that particular idea.

A script memory is an abstract general memory for the typical activities that occur during routine events, and that routine event is how you interact with this person.  What this means is your conscious mind is not focused on the interaction; your subconscious mind is in control and all your brain can see is proof that the script you have created is right and the ideas this person has are terrible.  In short, you can give me ten or twenty reasons why this idea is no good and why they always come up with bad ideas.  However, when I challenge you to give me one good idea from what the individual has presented, your cognitive load increases, your conscious mind is engaged and you have to think hard to identify one good idea.  If you can.

Critical thinking is a conscious act where you identify the positives and negatives of an idea, topic or subject and you objectively evaluate both.  It’s not subjective and it relies on you being able to question in a way that unearths the facts of a situation before you make a judgment or decision.  It’s collaborative, not combative and it builds relationships rather than destroys them.

So the next time someone brings an idea to you, before you start to question, pause, listen and question to understand.  Seek to see the positives as well as the potential challenges.  Take your time to evaluate and discuss the topic objectively not emotionally.  Agree the facts, agree the potential outcomes and make a judgement based on a critical but positive view on what can be achieved or not achieved by taking action on this specific idea.

And remember to thank the person for taking the time to come up with the idea in the first place.

After all, creativity comes from being brave and feeling psychologically safe enough to take risks.  So cultivate a culture of creativity and turn “criticism” into Critical Thinking.

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