Human resources team leading organizations into the future

Mastering the Future: The Imperative of Critical Thinking for Leaders in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The World Economic Forum identified Critical Thinking as an essential skill for leaders to be successful today and in the future. As organizations and leaders adopt artificial intelligence, there will undoubtedly be increased knowledge and productivity gains from technology-based information and decisions. This doesn’t mean leaders will be replaced, but it does mean skills like critical thinking are increasingly valuable and something that will distinguish leaders from bots.

Yet critical thinking and its associated skills are hard to pin down. Ask three different people what it means to be a critical thinker, and you will probably get three other answers: analytical, strategic, and curious. And they’re not wrong.

Why? Because critical thinking is complex and multi-layered, several aspects of critical thinking overlap.

Analyzing both the specific dimensions and less apparent aspects reveals a distinct definition and thought process for leaders, fostering critical thinking across all levels.

  • Analytical – A critical thinker can take things apart and put them back together. They see the whole picture and look at parts and pieces to understand discrete elements. Instead of taking challenges at face value, they push to understand the root cause. Analytical thinkers recognize patterns and make connections, sometimes between seemingly unrelated topics, which help shape their approach.
  • Strategic – Critical thinkers see things from different perspectives and move quickly back and forth between those perspectives. They see short-term goals while holding a long-term vision. They consider what’s on the surface and question what might be happening underneath. While they understand the internal dynamics of an organization, they also maintain an understanding of the larger economic, political, cultural, or competitive forces.
  • Curious – Questioning in a non-threatening way is the mark of a critical thinker. Critical thinkers wonder about how a situation or challenge came to be, and they ask about the potential solutions. Instead of immediately tackling a presenting challenge, they push to understand the root cause. They are smart about asking what solutions haven’t been considered and what else is possible.

Less apparent, but equally as important aspects of critical thinking include the need to be:

  • Inclusive – Inclusivity and critical thinking are not necessarily considered logical companions – but they are. Good critical thinkers are not afraid to seek other opinions and diverse perspectives. They recognize the wisdom of reaching beyond their inner circle or typical “go-to” people to hear diverse perspectives.  They invite other opinions even if the individual providing that opinion lacks historical knowledge or comes from an unrelated discipline – they welcome the naïve expert.
  • Humble –  Critical thinkers not only question others, they question themselves – that’s not a lack of confidence, but an appropriate measure of humility. They hold out the possibility, if not the likelihood, that their solution might not be the right way – or the only way. They aren’t afraid of wondering, “What if I’m wrong?” and seeking counter-opinions.
  • Emotionally intelligent – A critical thinker has emotional intelligence.  They are self-aware enough to acknowledge their personal bias. They not only notice those biases but challenge themselves to confront them. They are flexible – not so wedded to their plan or idea that they fail to change paths when faced with new options.  Self-aware leaders sense when they may not be looking at a situation objectively or accurately – an EI skill known as reality testing.  A leader who effectively reality tests is a more effective critical thinker.

What are some specific things leaders can do to enhance their critical thinking?

  • Challenge themselves to look at a situation from another point of view – adopt the mindset of their client, team member, or even a competitor. What looks different from that viewpoint? 
  • Don’t be surrounded by “yes” people – find team members or colleagues who aren’t afraid to push back, challenge, etc.
  • Always ask about other options – what is not being presented? Why is that? Ask what wasn’t considered.
  • Explore convergent thinking – where have they seen patterns before, and what do they know based on their experience? 
  • Explore divergent thinking – how can they take an innovative or different approach to this challenge?
  • Take a beat, pause, and don’t move too quickly. Moving too quickly makes leaders more likely to choose what’s in front of them instead of asking what’s not.  

Artificial intelligence will continue to accelerate productivity and enable employees to get work done in different ways.  But new technology, access to unprecedented amounts of data are best coupled with the critical thinking of leaders and their teams.  Cultivating critical thinking skills is imperative for organizations to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world. 

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