Engage your employees by developing their critical thinking skills

During the exceptional Women’s Foodservice Forum Executive Leadership Conference in Dallas, Texas on July 27, internationally recognized leadership expert John Mattone noted that “critical thinking skills are a key predictor of executive success” while talking about emerging talent. In that moment, I gave my 14-year-old self a fist bump for joining the debate team. It didn’t come with a letter jacket, or the cache of cheerleading or color guard. But debate helped me gain valuable public speaking and logic construction skills that proved to be essential to my career growth.

So how can we help employees without that kind of formative experience or training hone their critical thinking capabilities? I’m not just talking about Millennials here.  People of all ages and backgrounds need this ability in order to maximize their leadership potential. Here are a few tips to consider:

  1. Develop the ability to understand multiple perspectives. One of the most challenging aspects of debate was flipping a coin and having to take a different stance on an argument, regardless of our personal opinion. Let’s say that one of your team members has a conflict with another department or has become frustrated dealing with a customer. Ask them to take a few minutes to step into that person or group’s shoes. Consider what motivates those individuals, making a list of everything that comes to your mind. What pressures do they face? How do you help or hinder their efforts?  Understanding the perspectives of others more deeply builds critical thinking while also developing your empathy skills.
  2. Construct logical arguments. Back in elementary school, the easiest way to deal with a perceived slight was to shout “yo momma” and storm away with righteous indignation. Okay, so this might have been a situational thing for Columbia, South Carolina in the day when Jimmy Carter was President and leisure suits were considered a viable fashion choice. As adults with careers, that approach (usually) doesn’t work so well. A strong argument is based on having a clear viewpoint that is substantiated with research and presented in a compelling manner to your target audience. Building on understanding multiple perspectives, anticipate the barriers and challenges you might face in order to present solutions as part of your argument. Recognizing how short people’s attention spans are, I typically state my case upfront, pull in supporting facts and then propose the desired course of action all within a few minute time span, going into more detail once the target audience is engaged in the topic.
  3. Build intellectual curiosity. I ask my team to learn more about what other companies and organizations are doing in order to see what’s possible. In fact, researching Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list caused our savvy Director, Community Outreach to recommend creating a Volunteer Time Off program for National DCP that we are just starting to launch. Encourage your team to join professional associations and attend meetings. Look for lessons in all aspects of your life and interests that might yield bright ideas at work. For example, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point prompted out-of-the-box thinking that allowed me to help make Spanx a household name during the brand’s early years.
  4.  Present your thoughts. Honing critical thinking skills also involves expressing your viewpoint to others. Be ready to defend it logically, anticipating counter arguments and the beliefs of others. And just as important, come prepared to evolve your thinking to adapt to the greater good of the organization. One of your co-workers might have a compelling perspective you had never considered before that takes your thinking into a better, stronger direction. When that happens, remain open to seeing where it can go and the possibilities of collaboration. That approach has worked for S&D Coffee & Tea in Concord, North Carolina. “An important part of becoming a learning organization is having team members express a problem, identify three solutions and then explain why you picked a certain direction,” explains Brian R. Bradley, S&D’s Executive Vice President, Director Corporate. “It becomes a mentoring opportunity to help individuals think through challenges and receive the support needed to proceed.”

What advice can you share for developing critical thinking skills? How have these talents impacted your career?

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