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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Coaching for critical thinking, part two: What does it mean to coach critical thinkers?

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

With the continued growth of automation and artificial intelligence, we will lose the ability to earn a paycheck for rote, repetitive thinking (see part one for more). The only problems that we will have left to solve are the messy, complex, and cumbersome problems that require critical thinking. This presents an opportunity for today's workplace leader, to coach their employees not merely to be more productive and engaged (though certainly, these are important), but to be critical thinkers.

What does it mean to coach critical thinkers?

It starts with challenging easy assumptions and rapid reactions. NYU moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion") suggests that our minds operate with two competing systems: a rational rider, capable of critical thought and strategic thinking, and a reactive elephant, driven by emotions, assumptions, and subconscious thinking. The elephant is physically stronger than the rider and lumbers wherever its elephant mind would go.

For Haidt, the critical thinker is not one who never acts with emotion, assumption, and subconscious thinking, but one who can put emotion, assumption, and subconscious thought into conversation with logic, reason, and evidence. To coach a critical thinker is to facilitate this dialogue.

Emotions and assumptions are fundamental to who we are as people, but in and of themselves aren't particularly useful in a workplace where all of our problems require long-term, perspective-expanding consideration.

In today's complex work environment, emotions and assumptions need to be balanced with strategy, direction, and data. Accordingly, today's managers should think of themselves as quasi-elephant tamers, tasked with helping their teams to be more consciously aware of how emotions and assumptions are shaping their behavior.

This can begin with the simple act of thoughtfully challenging snap-judgments. Coaching for critical thinking involves pushing back on snap-reactions, personal criticisms, and negative opinions that seem divorced from facts and data. This push back should come with a fair bit of humility - as leaders, it's not your job to eliminate snap-reactions, personal criticisms, and negative opinions, but to bring them into alignment with the big picture, with an organization's mission and vision, and with the objective facts of the situation.

This thoughtful challenging of perspectives can be applied in a rather common workplace situation: griping about decisions made by our leaders. It seems that many of our reactions and assumptions are targeted at specific individuals who occupy higher positions in the company org chart. Strolling Madison's Capitol Square neighborhood each day over my lunch break, I overhear dozens of conversations where an individual is ruthlessly criticizing a manager, a director, or executive.

I've overheard these types of conversations from tech employees, state workers, baristas, personal trainers, and parking enforcement officers, to name just a few. It seems that "Wisconsin nice" doesn't apply when our bosses are out of earshot! Either all of our organizations are plagued by incompetent leaders, or we have a tendency to target our emotions and reactions to specific people!

Coaching critical thinkers involves cultivating empathy towards the targets of our assumptions. It does not mean we need to defend other managers, leaders, and executives.

Rather, as coaches, we should be placing our team members in a position where they can thoughtfully and carefully consider what they would do differently, were they in the leader's situation.

A good coach asks their team members how they, given an opportunity to confront the relevant facts, analyze the available resources, and consider possible alternatives, would decide differently.

After this careful consideration, if a team member would still decide differently, the coach must encourage them to articulate why they would do so - and ideally, to put this articulation into writing. This process isn't likely to reverse business decisions or convince an executive to change course, but it is likely to give the rider a less-obstructed view of the landscape.

To coach a critical thinker can involve many other practices: evaluating alternatives in the context of a guiding strategy, prioritizing work in the context of a shared goal or purpose, or charting a course based on the needs of multiple, divergent stakeholders. It's to some of these practices that we will turn in part three of this series, Coaching Questions for Critical Thinkers.

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