Date: 05/11/19 | Duration: 00:21:35

Critical thinking is a key skill for HR and all people professionals - it's the ability think well and to reflect objectively on the ideas, opinions and arguments of others. It can help us solve complex problems and make better decisions, bringing clarity to confusion and increasing our potential to succeed when others look to us and our teams for answers that work.

Join to Warren Howlett and Tim Coburn discussing why critical thinking is important, and how you can learn to reason well.

Philippa Lamb: In May we recorded a podcast about evidence-based decision making and how to recognise and understand all those factors that play into the choices and decisions we make at work every day. One of the central skills you need to do that is critical thinking and today we’re going to dig into what it is and how you can learn to reason well and independently.

Warren Howlett has been looking into this for the CIPD and here he is explaining why he thinks critical thinking is a key skill for HR.

Warren Howlett: Critical thinking is the ability to think well and to critically reflect on the ideas, opinions and arguments of others. There are three key parts to critical thinking for people professionals. The first of those is critiquing the ideas, opinions and arguments of others. The second of those is how they construct arguments and opinions themselves that they are communicating to others. And the third piece is to identify when others are using critical thinking techniques that impact how that people professional is making a case or building an argument making a business case.

And a really good example of that I think is, as a people professional, if we just think back, was there a time when you were in a meeting where you've done a lot of prep work, you've done your homework for a sound case for a people practice or an investment and you've gone into the room having already spoken to stakeholders beforehand, you've done all of that work, and yet when you’re in the room somehow the business case didn’t land and a lot of the conversation was spent talking about something else that was unrelated or perhaps that was someone in the room using their critical thinking skills to appeal to history, perhaps they were talking about something that didn’t work in the past, that may even be unrelated. Perhaps it’s a red herring and actually they're talking about things that are completely unrelated to the case that you’re making that actually distract the conversation in the moment.

And it’s really important for people professionals to be able to identify when this would be happening in the room. After the meeting is far too late. We actually get a relatively small number of opportunities where we are in those types of situations, perhaps with the executive team that may only meet once a month, to actually make a case. So it’s really important that people professionals are on a level playing field with many of the line leaders who will have gone on leadership development programmes, perhaps they’ve had legal training, and lawyers tend to be particularly good at aspects of critical thinking. And so it’s really about people professionals actually being on a level playing field with those in the room, being able to reflect critically on the ideas, arguments and opinions of others to be able to make good, sound, logical cases themselves, and to identify when in the room somebody may be actually using critical thinking technique or perhaps we would call them common errors, common errors in critical thinking, to distract from the conversation that's being had in the room.

PL: And if people listening to this and thinking yeah that's landing with me, I see exactly what he's talking about, how do they develop that critical thinking ability?

WH: So I think there are some quick wins and some longer term development pieces. I think that constructing logical, sound arguments, takes some coaching and some practice. So it takes a bit of time to do. I think that identifying common errors is something that can be done quite quickly. Some of those are very obvious. So for example, personal attack. If you’re under personal attack in a meeting where someone is questioning your credibility and whether you should actually be in the room, that's fairly obvious. But things like, as I mentioned, appeals to history, red herrings, whether someone is being selective in using evidence, these are all common errors of which there are 30 or so. And actually just being aware of what those common errors are, could be incredibly powerful for you as a people professional when you are going into conversations and looking for investments, helping to make decisions.

PL: It’s subtle isn't it? It’s about learning to listen really carefully?

WH: Absolutely. And I think identifying what you want to do as a response. I think that's actually probably the trickiest thing once you start to get the hang of it because you need to be able to really call out when this is actually happening in a room but without necessarily assuming someone’s intent. So it could very well be the case that someone has the intent to derail the conversation, to stop or delay a decision around an investment or a case that you were trying to make, or to even manipulate the room, that's all possible. But it could also be very well that they just happen to be very good at critical thinking, they’ve perhaps had some training or development in the past and it’s part of their DNA, it’s part of their systems one thinking, they do it automatically and subconsciously without thinking.

PL: It sits side by side, does it, with? We talked about evidence-based decision making in a recent podcast, it’s in the same arena isn't it?

WH: Absolutely, yes. That's a very good point. So the critical thinking aspect of our New Profession Map on which it is a focus area, is part of the analytics and creating value section in our core knowledge, and much of the evidence-based practice work also sits in that area and evidence-based practice is about asking good questions and that is a key aspect of critical thinking.

PL: Tim Coburn has over 20 years’ experience with the BBC, Motorola and Rolls Royce where he was Global Head of Talent and Global Head of L&D. That is where his interest in critical thinking began and now he's working with the CIPD to develop a course for members. So Tim thanks for joining us and I should say at this point we’re recording this podcast in CIPD's offices in Victoria in Central London and it is a particularly noisy day here today so you can hear a bit of noises off but I think we’ll crack on anyway. Tim shall we start with critical thinking - what is it? How would you define it?

Tim Coburn: Critical thinking is the ability to think well, to think clearly, to take into account a number of diverse considerations and to reach conclusions which engage and take other people with you. It has a particular relevance in today’s world particularly because lots of the problems that we encounter are actually familiar to us and we can deal with those with our intuition. But there are some problems, perhaps more so these days, that require a bit more thought. They’re more complex, they’re unfamiliar and they need new ways of thinking.

PL: What sort of things are you talking about?

TC: The most obvious example is digital transformation, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, has actually displaced human capacity. A lot of our basic thinking can be done for us. This means that human beings actually are able, they have the capacity, to move to, if you like, a more intellectual higher ground where they can do some thinking that's required to address the more complex, perhaps value-based, concerns that we have in the world. And critical thinking I think has a particular part to play in helping us address those more complex issues.

PL: That's interesting. So yes the more demanding decision making, the more collaborative decision making? Because there's more of that now as well isn't there?

TC: Well there is and actually the history of critical thinking has tended to lead us to think that it’s associated with individual ability, individual excellence. It’s deeply embedded in the world of philosophy and in academia and in our educational system and we develop it as an, if you like, underpinning, transferable skill in our educational lives. But actually in today’s world we now know that collective intelligence outperforms individual intelligence or IQ, particularly in problem solving issues. So what we are starting to find is that actually the problems that we encounter in today’s world are better addressed in groups using collaborative and conversational intelligence more so than leaving it up to the expert to come up with the answer.

PL: That's interesting. So obviously that's going to be most people’s experience of work now, as you say lots of people in a room trying to solve something. I know that you've been interested in this for a long time, where did it start for you?

TC: Well actually it started during my corporate career when I was Head of Learning at Rolls Royce and one of our HR directors, the most senior HR director in the company at the time, came to me and said, ‘We deal, as an HR community with highly intelligent, some of the world’s best engineers working on some of the world’s leading aerospace technologies and sometimes, as HR business partners and directors and advisers, we need to get stuck into conversations with people who can be quite intimidating because of their intellectual ability. So for us as an HR community we need a way to engage in strategic conversations with our internal business partners. Can you come up with something that would help us? We think it might be in the area of critical thinking.’ I hadn’t heard that request before.

PL: Fascinating yeah.

TC: And this was around about 2006, 2007, so long before the contemporary interest in critical thinking has come to light. Anyway, so the request was from HR for some assistance to help them in collaboration with their business leaders and I came up with a way of helping them develop that ability.

PL: And what was that?

TC: It was a one-day workshop in critical thinking skills. And for me as a learning designer by background, I did my own subject matter research into what critical thinking is, translated it into an experiential learning workshop and the senior HR business partners, HR directors, took part in a workshop which equipped them with the skills that they wanted to be able to use in conversation with their clients.

PL: That will be a familiar conundrum to a lot of people working in a lot of different sectors, this idea that you have to engage on a serious level with people who do work, you don't actually understand.

TC: Exactly.

PL: And don't really need to understand.

TC: Exactly.

PL: But you still need to engage with them to get things done. So how did that go down?

TC: It went down very well. The feedback was extremely positive and to just build on your observation that it equips people to engage with experts when we don't have subject matter knowledge ourselves, but it helps us in two ways. It helps us both engage but it also helps us to facilitate their thinking. So one of the roles that HR is often drawn into is the facilitation of meetings, particularly when there are difficult complex or strategic issues to address and HR is often turned to as can you facilitate the meeting? And on the one hand you could do that by standing with a flipchart and using the pen and saying, ‘What do you want me to write down?’

But we can be a lot more proactive than that and most HR practitioners are. And what we often do is come up with a structured process which helps the business leaders themselves do their thinking in a more robust, structured way and critical thinking adds value to that. So for example, just to go into critical thinking a little bit, it gives us broadly three things in my view. First of all it gives us a set of standards or principles, a set of quality criteria, by which we can judge both our thinking and the output of our thinking, the proposals, solutions or ideas that come from it. The second thing it gives us are a set of what are known as common errors. It sounds a little bit like jargon but actually these common errors have been around for many, many years and you'll probably find resources on the internet where there are up to 300 common errors.

PL: What sort of things?

TC: Well things like, the most simple of which would be what is known as hasty generalisation, which we all know as ‘umping to conclusions’ And we all have a tendency, based on prior experience or prior observation, that we think we know what to do in a certain situation, or what the answer should be.

PL: You reach for the familiar?

TC: Yeah and so we go for that and sometimes without questioning the assumptions or beliefs or inferences that are being made at the same time. So hasty generalisation is an example of a common error. So a more complex one would be one that's known as necessary and sufficient conditions. So we might be attending to an argument or a debate, development of a proposal, in which we start to think we’ve got a good solution that seems like one we could implement and would work, but actually it might only be fulfilling some but not all of the necessary conditions for it to succeed. And so if we went ahead with that we would be committing the error of necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Another example would be, and these will sound much more familiar especially in the world of work, they’re known as the appeals generally as a category, and one that's often used in the world of work is appeal to history, which we would automatically recognise as oh that must mean something like we’ve always done it this way so that's how we should do it now. And we’ll have heard a lot of that in organisations. Another is appeal to popularity. So consensus is right, right? okay? Well actually sometimes, no it isn't, because the people contributing to the consensus of opinion may not have access to all the knowledge that we should be bringing to bear to a particular situation.

The immediate question now becomes if your curiosity is enlightened by this you’d be saying, ‘So what would it do for me to know about these common errors?’ So what it would do is give you a set of lenses or ways of listening in to important business conversations. And being able to notice and pick out errors that are being made in the quality of conversation that was taking place. And it would equip you to ask questions that would bring to light the error and lead to a solution.

PL: And the third point?

TC: Yeah the third point is, once we’re aware of the common errors and the principles or standards by which we judge the quality of our thinking, is the ability to hold conversations and be persuasive in discussion with colleagues. It’s all very well having very good individual, independent thinking, but unless you’re able to engage and persuade and take other people with you then your individual idea isn't going to add much value in a corporate setting. So corporate organisations, by definition, are collaborative. We get things done by working together. So if anybody has a good idea and want to persuade others critical thinking actually gives you the armoury of persuasion and one of the huge advantages to HR is that it actually reinforces the role and contribution that HR can make to the business agenda.

PL: So going back to Rolls Royce where you first started playing with this concept, you came up with this course and people went on the course, presumably your HR partners were delighted with it. What about the people on the other side of the table? What about the expert people within the organisation? Did they see a difference in the quality of interactions?

TC: Well of course this is the golden ticket question, and I want to say ‘Yes of course!’ but actually as we all know in the domain of behavioural change, it takes time.

PL: Did they resist it?

TC: Not at all. I think, and the feedback from colleagues was that they slowly experimented with asking a different set of questions or making a different set of suggestions in the discussions that they were taking part in and they felt more confident about being able to add value. They felt more competent in having a new skill, a different skill, and in fact some of the feedback that came after a few weeks and months was, you know what people are starting to say, ‘Where did you get the ability to ask those questions from?’

PL: That's pleasing.

TC: So that was the kind of indicative feedback that in the world of learning and development we often treat with a bit more respect than the tick sheet at the end of the workshop, or indeed personal testimony. What we like is testimony from customers or colleagues who've engaged and noticed a change in behaviour. And that was the evidence that made me think, when I was working at Rolls Royce, that this actually was having an impact that really added value, particularly to HR people.

PL: So that worked really well. Presumably you’ve put that into play in other organisations now?

TC: Yes, so since that time I started to work as an independent consultant around about five years ago, and there are two or three areas of interest that I have pursued. And one of which is working with executive teams in which I'm often asked to design and facilitate meetings that will help senior leaders make strategic decisions and at the same time learn how to be better as a high performing team. And one of the methods or tools that I've introduced into that setting is critical thinking. So for example I was working with a financial services organisation and particularly with their IT leadership team and they were looking to introduce new technologies in their journey towards digital transformation. So the agenda for the two days was mostly about project planning and implementation but they had asked me to introduce new skills that they might also use to better effect, and critical thinking was one of those so I integrated the development of these new skills with the challenges that they were addressing. And to me this is the perfect way of enabling people to learn a new behaviour if you attach it to a real issue that they believe is absolutely relevant, top of their agenda.

PL: So they’re properly engaged with it.

TC: And then equip them with skills they can use to address that challenge more effectively proves to be very, very compelling for participants. The kind of things I included in that were an introduction to the critical thinking standards or principles by which a good argument or a good proposal can be developed: an awareness of the common errors that can often be made and how to spot them and how to ask questions that challenge them. And the third dimension is to have conversations as a team using the principles of collective intelligence.

Now I should say here, because the astute listener will be thinking how is collective intelligence part of critical thinking? Well, we all know that critical thinking began about 3,000 years ago with Socrates and the research into collective intelligence wasn’t done at that time. But if we are going to teach or provide critical thinking in today’s world, then we need to take account of the innovations in the way human beings think that have also happened in more recent years. And emotional intelligence, we wouldn’t think in today’s world of tackling a problem without being empathetic or compassionate or caring or being ethical. Our attunement to these principles comes from the great work in the domain of emotional intelligence. And we can attach that to critical thinking. In the same way we can attach the recent research into collective intelligence into critical thinking for today’s world.

PL: So it’s becoming more complicated.

TC: Well I think it is and I think the high ground, if I can call it that, for human beings is to accept that our behaviour is being disrupted by technology. In other words we don't need to do some of the things that technology can now do for us. It’s taken away our need to do routine thinking but actually gives us capacity to do more complex, innovative thinking. And I think critical thinking is one of the key skills that HR practitioners and business leaders could equally be able to use in this area.

PL: And here’s Warren on how the CIPD can help you to develop this vital skill.

WH: We have some free resources that will be available on our CIPD learning platform. So we’re building that in parallel to the New Profession Map. So there will be an area of CIPD learning for analytics and creating value, and part of that will be on critical thinking. So that will be available as a resource for free to all of our members. And we are also building a short course around critical thinking which I am doing with Tim Coburn. And we are looking to pilot that in Q4 of this year.

PL: Thanks to Tim and to Warren and while you wait for the new CIPD resources why not take a look at the Profession Map to see where critical thinking fits in. You'll find it on the CIPD site.

Now after presenting over 150 monthly podcasts for the CIPD, I'm going to hand over the series to a new presenter in January. So listen out for a new voice and insightful conversations in 2020. The team will be taking a well-earned break in December. In the meantime my name is Philippa Lamb and on behalf of the series producers Lucy Greenwell and Becky Jacobs, and me, thanks for listening.

Explore our related content

Top