Why Government Managers Need to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
By Asila Safi and Darrell Norman Burrell
Why Are Critical Thinking Skills Important?
Evolving Leadership challenges like succession planning in government, international cultural genocide, and international terrorism have made decision making for all government professionals complex. Today's government manager has to be more thorough, strategic, adaptive, and multiple scenario driven then their predecessors. Even with an experienced manager there is likelihood to mishandle a crisis or leadership decision when the unexpected occurs.
In this context, critical thinking involves learning to apply experience-based and team based problem solving methods to situations. Critical thinking is also about learning to overcome and become self aware of biases, false assumptions, myths, and faulty paradigms that can hamper effective decision making (Bazerman 2005).
What Is Critical Thinking?
In critical thinking managers create multiple solutions to problems by constantly questioning and challenging their strengths, and through an examination thinking and decision making preferences and practices. Thinking is fueled by questions. Questions define variables, state factors, outline tasks, clarify issues, and express problems. Complex questioning drives thought beyond what is superficial. Asking questions forces everyone involved to express and challenge preconceived notions and assumptions. Asking questions forces public managers to look at their sources of information and consider the validity and quality. This kind of in depth questioning and analysis helps assure that the solution will actually solve the problem, not just be the best of mediocre options. Engaging in this process also creates a mechanism of reassessment where if the solution does meet a determined level of satisfaction, the decision makers re-open the process and further research, brainstorm, until the most effective outcome of decision is established (McAuliffe 2005).
Critical thinking is a process of intense reflection which results in the adaptive interpretation and analysis of the evidential, conceptual, or contextual considerations with important decisions. The successful application of these core skills requires that one take into reasoned consideration of the evidence, contexts, theories, and criteria in which problems are solved. The process is more then just making decisions. It is also about the ability to consistently develop better alternatives and make better group decisions even in contentious environments, and sell or defend decisions successfully within any organizational hierarchy (McAuliffe 2005).
Effective critical thinkers engage in comprehensive, flexible thinking, thus enhancing manager's ability to generate good alternatives, design something new, and successfully implement innovative ideas. To be successful, public managers must avoid reasoning fallacies in order to critically examine the best ways to solve perplexing policy problems. When done effectively, critical thinking skills can allow managers to:
- Develop paths to reasoned judgment when variables in a situation are changing and evolving;
- Learn to encourage and ensure consideration of many breakthrough or "outside- the-box" ideas;
- Acquire techniques to speed up group decision-making, while still developing multiple solutions.
Critical Thinking Can Be Learned
The American Management Association, http://www.amanet.org/, offers a course in Critical Thinking skills. The course teaches managers how to:
- Become familiar with different styles of thinking and identify your personal critical thinking preferences;
- Learn how to use critical thinking to challenge assumptions and expand perceptions about situations.
Management Concepts, http://www.mgmtconcepts.com/, offers a course in Critical Thinking for Professionals. This course is designed to teach managers how to:
- Identify their style and patterns of thinking;
- Adapt their thinking to navigate through unexpected events.
These courses can provide training for government professionals on how to critical thinking skills in leadership decision making. These actions require that managers:
1. Overcome the first notion that there is only one 'right solution' to the organizational quandaries.
2. Eliminate mental blocks in the forms of biases, myths, and false assumptions.
3. Stop and think before acting and making quick decisions without the benefit data and variable evaluation.
4. Focus on the organization's goals and values before taking a major decision by asking if the ideal outcome is in alignment with the mission and values.
5. Write down all the positive and negative factors for and against taking a particular course of action.
6. Get opinions and feedback from others.
7. Make decisions with an understanding the variables and circumstances have the ability to change.
8. Do not make decisions by only looking backwards.
In summary, critical thinking skills can be learned with practice and guidance by changing the actions involved in decision making so that they become part of permanent behavior.
Bazerman, Max (2005), Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. Wiley and Sons: Hoboken, NJ.
Marshall, R., Tucker, M., Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations. New York: Basic Books. 1992.
McAuliffe, Thomas P. (2005), The 90% Solution: A Consistent Approach to Optimal Business Decisions. Authorhouse: Los Angles, CA.
Spitzer, Q., Evans R. (1997), HEADS YOU WIN: How the Best Companies Think. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
Asila Safi is a doctoral student at Colorado Technical University. She has a graduate degree in Organizational Management from National Louis University. She works in a leadership position at the General Services Administration. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darrell Burrell is a faculty member with Averett University in Virginia. He has graduate degrees in Human Resources Management, Education, Marketing Management, and Organizational Management. He is also a Presidential Management Fellow in the US Federal Government. http://www.pmf.gov/. He can be contacted at email@example.com.