Critical Thinking: How to Get Your Team to Think more Effectively, Trust Each Other and Generate Sustainable New Ideas

Critical thinking skills on teams means asking questions, and working together to think through problems and possible solutions by using foresight.

Critical thinking is a much lauded term when it comes to skills that individuals need in the workplace. Put simply, critical thinking is the ability to synthesize information, and to analyze information based on where it’s coming and how it can be applied. 

One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is asking questions. With critical thinking, context and the sources of information are of great importance. Information can come from a lot of places, including ones that may be biased or misinformed. Additionally, how to use certain pieces of information cna make the difference between effective and non-effective solutions.

But this is where the connection between teams and critical thinking becomes crucial. Perhaps individually we can analyze sources of information and think about the context in which to use this information on our own. However, this takes a lot of knowledge and time. Plus, depending on our education or speciality, we may not have the skills to properly analyze certain types of information. 

Thus, having a team is useful for critical thinking in a number of ways. With more people, you have more opinions and a greater diversity of ways of thinking, which can help you to think critically about more types of information. 

You also have more people to ask questions and generate solutions. When teams are open with each other and communicate effectively, they can raise questions about each other’s ideas, and look to different places for inspiration in coming up with creative ways to solve problems.

So, in this blog post, which is a continuation of our series on thinking and teams, we’ll be looking at critical thinking, and discussing how this way of thinking and team building go hand-in-hand. We’ll also give you some ways that your team can increase its critical thinking skills. 

Let’s put on our thinking caps and dive in…

What is critical thinking? 

First, let’s answer that critical thinking actually is. This is actually more difficult than it seems, since there isn’t really a definitive consensus around what critical thinking is. Most would agree that it has to do with synthesizing and analyzing information, and with using reasoning. 

In the way that we will use critical thinking here however, critical thinking is actually about the step that comes after an initial thought or idea. So it’s not about generating new ideas necessarily, but about how to perceive and appraise those new ideas.

This is done, of course, by being “critical” of ideas and information that comes your way. This doesn’t mean “critical” in the social sense of judgment or skeptical for no reason. Rather, critical here means using judgment, logic, and reason to analyze an idea or argument from multiple perspectives, where it comes from, and what the context is. 

Critical thinking is therefore not an easy or necessarily “natural” way of thinking. We tend to want to accept information from certain people or sources we want to trust because we are programmed to be social beings who work together to create communities and teams through building relationships. Accepting someone’s ideas or opinions uncritically can be a way to demonstrate that trust, or show that you are part of their community or team. 

Critical thinking, however, demands that we look at information objectively and reasonably, which may mean rejecting certain ideas or pieces of information if they are not well well-grounded in facts or sound logic, or if they do not effectively solve the problem you are looking at–regardless of who the source is.

Critical thinking on teams: The importance of trust

However, in actuality critical thinking on teams doesn’t lead to a breakdown in trust issues. In fact, it requires a great deal of trust, and can lead to even greater bonds of trust being formed.

This is because it takes a lot of trust to share opinions and thoughts openly. When there is a real foundation of trust on teams, members can be critical of each other’s ideas and be honest about whether they will work or not without fear that this criticism will be taken personally. 

On the contrary, it is when there is a lack of trust, or when trust is uncertain, that people are more afraid to criticize ideas, especially those of their superiors or mentors on the team. But this results in an unhealthy and ineffective team, where everyone tries to hide their real opinions, and where bad ideas may be accepted without any discussion or thought.  

So teams have an incentive to think more critically. And yet, a team where critical thinking happens in the absence of trust is also not ideal. It’s unrealistic to assume that no one will be angry when their idea or concept is criticized, even if it is done so on a rational basis. We all have emotions like pride and envy and the desire to achieve success.

That is why trust and critical thinking need to go hand-in-hand. Teams need to develop a firm foundation of trust and understanding, so that when critical thinking skills are engaged, team members know on an emotional level that their feelings are not being ignored. 

This creates a positive cycle, where as team members feel more safe and comfortable in the understanding that their emotional needs will be met by their team members, they will feel more willing to share their ideas (even if they know they may be criticized) as well as their own critiques. 

As a result, team building activities that work on improving trust and communication while also challenging teams’ ability to think through problems are the best at strengthening critical thinking skills.  

A model for developing critical thinking on teams

Critical thinking may be hard for some teams to wrap their minds around, especially since it requires taking a little more team to actually sift through ideas and analyze them. Furthermore, a lot newer or younger team members may not be familiar with critical thinking, or have the courage to actually practice it.

Luckly, there is a four-step model developed by Matt Plummer that helps explain the steps of critical thinking on teams. This is similar to the Plan-Do-Step-Act (PDCA) model, except that the focus is more so on thinking and analyzing the problem or idea.

Phase 1: Execute

In fact, in this model, the action is the first step. This is because, as we said before, critical thinking is a process of analyzing ideas and information. So you need to have something to start with. 

So in this phase, your team is merely accomplishing a task–completing a report, launching a new product, or making a decision at a meeting. Even at this early stage though, you can start to ask questions and think critically: How did we accomplish the task? Did everyone participate? What worked well? What didn’t? etc. 

Phase 2: Synthesize

Now you have some information to work with, so you can start analyzing. For example, you can look at the results of your marketing campaign, or look at the effects of a new proposal. Part of the synthesizing phase though, is really understanding which information is useful and which isn’t. What sources are valuable for this project, and which ones aren’t?

Your larger goal is to analyze the new idea or action, but critical thinking is also about how you practice using information in general, and this step is key in that. 

Pahse 3: Recommend

Once you’ve sifted through the information and research you’ve gathered, you can then start to make suggestions and recommendations about what to do next. For example, maybe your data has shown that the new proposal hasn’t had the desired effect. What do you do? Do you tweak it or get rid of it? Or do let it continue in the hopes that maybe it will start to work in the future? 

Recommendations are important in critical thinking because it allows new ideas to emerge from the criticism. The goal is not just to discern what’s bad or good, but to move past the initial idea or piece of information to decide what to do about it.

Weighing options in the recommendations is also important. Understanding that no idea is primarily good or bad, but that each has pluses and minuses, is another aspect of critical thinking that can help teams to promote more collaboration.

Phase 4: Generate

Out of these recommendations, it’s time to form a new idea. Perhaps it’s modeled on the old one with some reforms, or perhaps it’s a brand new idea that goes in a completely different direction. The point is that you have crafted a new idea or concept based on the information that you analyzed about the last one. Your team has grown and developed, and is moving forward.

Of course, this generation of new ideas is much easier on teams, where you have other people to bounce off ideas and criticisms. The overall sharing of ideas on teams makes them more capable of not only creating new ideas, but of deciding which ones actually work. 

Ways teams can strengthen critical thinking skills

1. Ask more and better questions

Questions form the major basis of critical thinking. To engage these critical thinking skills on your team, make sure to ask lots of questions, and to make your team more comfortable asking them. But the quality of your questions can also determine your team’s effectiveness, so instill a culture of asking good questions after every proposal, and at every meeting. 

2. Listen 

But it’s not just asking questions that’s important. You also have to listen to them, and listen to the answers. Active listening is a big part of critical thinking, since a lot of information comes our way through other people and what they say. Listen to your team when they shake their critiques and feelings, and create a culture where everyone feels that their voices are being listened to. 

3. Create hypotheses but don’t attached to them

What this basically means is use your imagination. Create hypotheses and play with hypothetical situations. Ask “what if…?” questions that engage team members’ creativity. This can help lead to critical thought and develop new ideas into workable solutions. But make sure that you use your imagination playfully. Don’t get so attached to hypotheses that you can’t criticize them or let them go if they end up not working. 

4. Have foresight

Having foresight means thinking about the actual impact of your ideas and thoughts. How will this affect your team, your clients, or your customers? How will this impact the future of your company or business? 

Foresight can help ground your ideas and make you think more critically about them. Especially when you are beginning to analyze your new ideas or results, thinking about the real world impact from multiple perspectives can help to weed out parts of them that aren’t tenable, or that need more discussion or analysis.

5. Team Building 

Finally, team building activities, like the ones at Invite Japan, can train your team to think more critically. By giving your team challenges that require making decisions and following through, your team can practice the ideas that we laid out in this blog post. Plus, team building activities work to build trust on teams, therefore making your team more capable of sharing ideas and opinions, and being open to criticism.

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