Is critical thinking important?

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What’s the first thing you do when you find out you have to make a major, pivotal decision?

Do you follow your gut? Or maybe your feelings? Quickly take the high risk for its equally high reward? Roll a dice on it? Or something else entirely?

It’s in our nature as human beings to think. For this reason, philosopher René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”, Latin for “I think, therefore I am”, is one of the most popular quotes that we use even today.

We don’t have a choice to think or not to. We just do. So what sets us apart as individuals and decides if someone is more intelligent than the other isn’t whether the person thinks or not, rather, it’s how the person thinks that defines it. 

We as human beings have a lot of biases and emotions brought about by both nature and nurture. And a lot of the time, we allow these feelings to bleed into our decision making. At worst, we even let them be at the forefront of it. “Follow your heart,” as many would say.

But while there is nothing particularly wrong with being driven by matters of the heart, it happens that these biases cloud our judgment and prevent us from opening our minds and from allowing us to make more informed and planned out decisions.

This is where critical thinking comes in, and I can assure you that it is the most important aspect of making any good decision for your business.

What is critical thinking?

There are a plethora of ways to define critical thinking. David Hitchcock cites a few of them in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and summarises it through one direct and concise definition: 

“Critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking.”

To elaborate on it more, The Foundation of Critical Thinking described critical thinking as “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analysing, assessing, and reconstructing it.”

Critical thinking therefore involves a lot of self-discipline and self-corrective thinking. It is a directed manner of thinking. When you think critically, you’re able to see an issue in various angles and perspectives before making a judgment. It helps you solve problems, overcome prejudices, and improve communication with others in general.

Picture those on Facebook who post some rather misinformed beliefs and have a hard time justifying their convictions.There are those who admit to their beliefs only being passed on from their parents, and there are others who go straight to the ad hominems instead of giving a proper explanation about it. Some would only copy and paste information from other regular social media users, not bothering to do their proper research through reliable sources.

It is those types of people who make decisions without thinking critically.

While it can’t be helped that some of our ideals and beliefs will be influenced by the people around us, being a critical thinker means knowing that what we hear from even the people closest to us, isn’t always right. Being a critical thinker means accepting the responsibility to do your own research, measuring the costs and the benefits of your options, and thinking about problems in the most objective way that you can. 

With our environment and personal biases being a powerful factor in shaping our opinions, it takes a great deal of determination to set aside what you already believe in (yes, even what your parents taught you), in favor of seeing things in different perspectives. But it is through this means that we find our clarity and our answers, and ultimately improve the quality of our lives by making the right decisions.

Why critical thinking is beneficial

Critical thinking is beneficial in practically anything that you do. Since it is crucial in decision-making, you’ll get better results or higher chances to achieve your goals.

For small business owners, this will mean leading your business in the right direction.

Building a business requires making decisions left and right. Oftentimes, it can be confusing, especially when all the questions stack up and you just don’t know what you want or what the right thing to do is. It becomes so overwhelming that you end up having a tough time with even the smallest decisions to be made. 

When you let this stress get the better of you, you end up making uninformed decisions, trusting luck for the outcomes of your decisions, instead of following a well-detailed strategy. That’s setting your business up for failure. Before you know it, one bad decision will pile up with another, and you’ll end up watching the very foundations of your business crumble.

Think of critical thinking as a way to reduce risks in your business. Better decisions means better investments. Better investments means fewer risks. Fewer risks means a higher chance of succeeding. Succeeding means achieving what you set out to do in the first place, and even more.

If critical thinking has all these pros and arguably no cons, then why isn’t it common sense for people to do it then?

Critical thinking requires skill and effort. It’s not something that you can do after mulling over a problem for 20 minutes. It’s not a random Eureka moment after a yoga session either. More than that, it isn’t the kind of thinking that answers a “Why?” with “I just want to, that’s all.”

How to think critically

Instead of deciding based on your gut feeling or your strong emotions, you should decide objectively. That means it’s based on facts and not biases. In all my years in business and working as a business coach, I’ve realised that thinking critically involves five methodical steps:

Step 1: Gather all the information needed

Previously, I talked about why this is important in any business. Without sufficient information, you run the risk of stuffing up how you operate, offer services, target your market, and learn from competition.

Without the right information, your decisions would be guesses and gambles.

Now, if you encounter a problem, chances are, you already have an answer based on what you already know (i.e. your guesses and gambles). Set all of these biases aside when doing your research, because you might only end up typing in keywords to find the exact answer that you already know, or the side that reinforces your premature decision. Use what you know to find a wider array of information.

Use reliable websites and primary sources instead. Seek academic journals if they’re available. Read news articles related to your issue. Talk to an industry expert or two about the topic. And so you know that you’re thinking for the business as a whole, know what your staff thinks, from surveys and one-on-one talks if necessary.

Gather all of this information and organise it.

Step 2: Deep dive into the situation/problem

Once you have all the information, clear your mind and and start dissecting what you’ve gathered. From here, you’ll find that there are various perspectives that try to answer the same problem. 

You will be able to make better decisions once you absorb, understand, and take all these angles into consideration. Having all of these sides will give you an opportunity to see the issue in an objective and unbiased manner.

Step 3: Understand the pros and cons of all potential decisions that can be made

Similar to cost-benefit analysis, a pros and cons list is an effective tool in decision making.

Make a list for each of your options. Write the pros side by side with the cons. When you organise this in a proper table you’ll be able to easily:

  • Find the option with the most pros
  • Find the option with the fewest cons
  • Compare and contrast between options
  • Weigh which one has the most impactful pros

Pros and cons lists help you identify which option/s will have the biggest benefits to your business. It will also aid you in determining options that might be harmful for your business.

Step 4: Use reason to inform thinking

Now you have all the information, a myriad of perspectives, and a pros and cons list to support your options. Remember to decide based on these and not on your emotions or impulse. Doing so defeats the purpose of having to go through this entire process.

But I know that this is easier said than done. Managing emotions is not easy. Just as much as we are thinking beings, we are feeling beings as well. 

There are many ways to process your emotions before making decisions. You can modulate your responses by getting a breath of fresh air, maybe sleeping it off for now, or finding a safe and healthy way to release your negative energy away from your work and loved ones.

Find what makes you stressed or upset, and when you find the root cause, you’ll more easily be able to let go of negative feelings that break down your self-esteem.

Lastly, take your time. Just as critical thinking takes time, so does balancing your emotions. It’s with a clear mind that you’ll be able to decide better.

Step 5: Decide on the best way forward and articulate why

The last step is to make that decision and stick with it. Don’t let your doubts come rushing back in. If you’ve followed all the previous steps, then chances are, you’re making the best decision in moving forward.

And as a leader in your business, you need to be ready to justify and articulate to your colleagues why you made that decision. You already have the evidence and the tools with you (and an actual list to boot!). These will make it easier to find the right words to explain why you made your choice.

Like the name suggests, critical thinking is crucial in any decision you make for your small business. It reduces the risks you’re taking and sets your business up to follow the right direction. 

Critical thinking is of course, not a quick process, but it will certainly reduce your stress, confusion, and temptations to be guided by your impulses and emotions instead of by facts. While it is not a simple method, it will make handling your business and leading your people a lot easier.

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