Social Entrepreneurs’ Survival Skill no. 5: Critical thinking
It’s a highly valued asset in the workplace – and it’s one of seven skills every social entrepreneur needs in order to survive. Read on for expert guidance on developing the mindset and skills to become a critical thinker, making you a better leader, too.
Critical thinkers accept nothing at face value. And, whether we realise it or not, we're all “critical thinkers”. After all, we make hundreds of decisions every day. We all use critical thinking to assess the likelihood of something happening, or of it being true.
Critical thinking is the objective, evidence-based analysis of an idea or theory. It requires you to question assumptions and seek opinions that challenge the prevailing wisdom.
- Interview: 'Leadership is about collating available information, and making the best decision you can' - Martin Avila, CEIS
- Resource: Critical thinking in action: six ways to identify misinformation
- Download: The Ladder of Inference
Collecting, analysing and evaluating information are important skills in life, and a highly valued asset in the workplace. And combining these key skills with a critical thinking mindset will help you to make better, well-informed decisions.
How do critical thinkers think?
Critical thinking is the discipline of rigorously and skillfully using information, experience, observation and reasoning to guide your decisions, actions and beliefs. Actively question every step of your thinking process to do it well.
People who score highly in critical thinking assessments are also rated by their managers as having good problem-solving skills, creativity, strong decision-making skills and good overall performance.
When presented with an argument, a critical thinker will ask:
- Who is saying this?
- Are they credible?
- What is their motive?
- Are they biased?
- What evidence do they have?
Many of the decisions we make in life are subtly informed by our values and beliefs
Key critical thinking skills
Focus on the three following areas to develop your critical thinking skills:
Be willing to explore alternative approaches and experimental ideas. Can you think through “what if” scenarios, create plausible options and test out your theories? If not, you'll tend to write off ideas too soon, and miss the best answer to your situation.
Stay up to date with facts and trends. Don’t allow yourself to become “blinkered”; always be open to new information. Look for opposing views or evidence to challenge your assumptions. Seek clarification when things are unclear.
You must be skilled at reasoning and extending logic to come up with plausible options or outcomes.
Emphasise logic over emotion. Emotion can be motivating, but can also lead to hasty and unwise actions. Try to control your emotions and be cautious in your judgments. Know when a conclusion is fact and when it is not. “Could-be-true” conclusions are based on assumptions and must be tested further.
Many of the decisions we make in life are subtly informed by our values and beliefs. These influences are called cognitive biases – and it can be difficult to identify them in ourselves because they're often subconscious.
These could be, for instance, confirmation bias – prioritising data that supports our beliefs. Or stereotyping – unconscious preconceptions that affect our reasoning.
It is vital to understand yourself in order to understand other people’s points of view. What’s behind their issues, behaviours and objectives? Be sure to question your own emotional response to these as part of the decision-making process.
Practising self-awareness will allow you to reflect on the beliefs you have and the choices you make. You'll then be better equipped to challenge your own thinking and make improved, unbiased decisions.
Developing a critical thinking mindset
Combining the above skills with the right mindset can help you make better decisions. Develop your critical thinking mindset by following this process:
1. Gather information
Collect data, opinions and facts on the issue you need to solve. Draw on what you already know. Consider any gaps in your knowledge and seek to fill them. Look for information that challenges your assumptions and beliefs. Verify the authority and authenticity of your sources.
Now observe the information you have gathered, and interpret it. What are the key findings and main takeaways? What does the evidence point to? Start to build one or two possible arguments based on what you have found.
The final step involves challenging the information and rationalising its arguments.
Apply the laws of reason (induction, deduction, analogy) to judge an argument and determine its merits. To do this, it's essential that you determine the significance and validity of an argument to put it in the correct perspective.
Remember, too, to take a step back from the data gathered to give yourself the big-picture perspective. Follow the evidence – look at all the information you have gathered, look at where it’s pointing, and make an informed choice.
'Leadership is about collating available information, and making the best decision you can' - Martin Avila, CEIS
Martin Avila is the CEO of Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEIS), which was established in 1984 and aims to make Scotland a better place to live and work with a more inclusive economy.
Below, Martin talks with Social Enterprise Academy CEO, Neil McLean, to discuss the topic of critical thinking and the value of lifelong learning.
Neil McLean: So, Martin, can you tell me a bit about your own background and how it led you to be at the Kinning Park Complex [a community centre in Glasgow] when we met in 2015?
Martin Avila: ‘After leaving university I went down the social entrepreneur route. I used Scotland Unlimited startup funding at the time to start a social enterprise called Xchange Scotland. I was active in the field of promoting multicultural understanding and active citizenship through volunteering and non-formal education and as a result I became involved with the Social Enterprise Academy. I applied through Just Enterprise and went on the Leading Edge programme – a programme for chief executives of social enterprises and other third sector organisations.’
NM: Can you talk about your experience of taking time to develop your leadership practice?
MA: ‘There was me and a whole host of other chief executives from a range of organisations of different sizes, coming to learn more about themselves and go on an educational leadership journey.
The section that stayed with me the most was learning about your own leadership style. It isn’t just about identifying your own strengths and weaknesses, it was going out and asking others how they perceive you. That learning about yourself and that self-acceptance and acceptance of others and being able to view others – not just through this kind of binary lens of a good or bad person, or somebody you like working with – but as a unique individual with their own working style, and their own needs for information to be presented in a certain way, and my needs to work in a certain way, was really valuable.
Much of your experience is socially constructed, and when you realise that, you realise it can be deconstructed
In a non-formal, peer learning environment, if people have the right values, are guided by the right values and have a shared and common aim, which is to learn together and from each other, the diversity in the room is directly correlated to the strength of the learning experience. The value you can see in having a conversation with your previous self as well as with your future self are both equally valuable. If you believe in the power of non-formal diverse learning, it is the only way to approach it.’
NM: What else do you think has helped you to develop your capacity to understand yourself better?
MA: ‘A great deal of self-acceptance and self-compassion. When you have those, it’s much easier to extend that out to others.
That emotional intelligence, if you want to call it that, takes time. It takes reflection, it takes going back and looking at situations, it takes talking through why things are in there. Like any other kind of muscle, it needs to be developed over time and I think that’s where non-formal programmes like Leading Edge become so valuable.
You realise that so much of your experience is socially constructed, and when you realise that, you realise it can be deconstructed’.
NM: How do you think taking time to develop your self-awareness has helped you manage the interactions you have with other people?
MA: ‘It gives you a better understanding of yourself but also a better understanding of others. In a leadership position, you’re really focused on the outcomes rather than the experience. If you have an objective that you want to achieve and someone else comes with another point of view which is impeding you directly achieving that objective, you can see that as a source of frustration. But if you have a little bit more self-awareness, it allows you to understand where they might be coming from and why they might be raising these points.
It allows you a lens to view not only your own reactions to a certain situation, but also what other people might be telling you. You can’t meet everyone’s goals all the time, especially when there are difficult decisions and compromises that need to be made, but having a deeper understanding of why people might be asking these questions may well lead you to make better decisions.’
NM: What would you say to someone who says that might sound fluffy and soft, rather than the tough decisions we have to make in leadership roles?
MA: ‘At the end of the day, leadership is about many things, but it is also about collating all of the information and making the best decision you can, based on all of the information available to you.
Because there’s making a decision for allowing the outcome that you want to happen now, but there is also making the decision and implementing the process that allows for a successful outcome to keep repeating itself. It’s possible to get to where you wanted to go, but to have created so much damage along the way that ultimately you are going to make it more difficult in the long run.
Leadership is about many things, but it is also about making the best decision you can, based on all of the information available
So I think it’s about not only getting where you want to go now, but also about creating the conditions to continually have success into the future. Because in a leadership role there’s no day in which the battle is won!’
NM: It sounds like you’re saying that critical thinking is completely linked to that self-awareness, and understanding responses. What have you learned about critical thinking that you think would be helpful to others?
MA: ‘Yes, I would struggle to see the difference between the two. Having a language and framework to engage in these concepts, having theories and research will help you to engage with these thoughts. If you develop the practice of saying to yourself:
- What am I trying to achieve today?
- What did I achieve today?
- What are the emotions I felt today? Why did I feel these emotions?
- How did those emotions affect the decisions that I made?
- Could I have done things differently?
- To what extent were the decisions I made driven by emotions or past assumptions, or what else was going on there?
If I was getting frustrated at a certain person because they acted in a certain way, what was driving that frustration? If I was overly eager to please or if I avoided having a crucial conversation because I didn’t want to stray into a territory, that might lead to a negative emotion.
I think anyone would benefit from doing that regularly – that’s the most difficult part. [But] the more you become committed to this practice [of asking these questions], the better your practice will be.’
Critical thinking in action: Six ways to identify misinformation
Sorting fact from fiction in a world where we are all bombarded with information from the media (and social media) is a critical skill for everyone. For social enterprise leaders, who are often working at the front lines of critical and much-discussed issues such as Covid-19 or climate change, getting to the truth of the matter matters.
To help you do this, use these six steps:
1. Develop a critical mindset
Misinformation is often believable, so it's easy to get caught out. Many fake news stories are also written to create shock value, that is, a strong instinctive reaction such as fear or anger in readers. Keep your emotional response in check. Ask yourself, “Why has this story been written? Am I being triggered?”
2. Check the source
Check the web address. Spelling errors in company names, or strange-sounding extensions like .infonet and .offer, rather than .com or .co.uk, may indicate the source is suspect. Consider the source’s reputation and professional standing. Are they known for their expertise on the matter? Trusted online sources like Snopes can help you to verify stories.
3. See who else is reporting the story
Has anyone else picked up on the story? What do other sources say about it? Professional global news agencies such as Reuters, CNN and the BBC have rigorous editorial guidelines and extensive networks of highly trained reporters, so are a good place to start. But no one is unbiased, and anyone can make a mistake, so keep looking.
4. Examine the evidence
A credible news story will include plenty of facts – expert quotes, survey data and official statistics, for example. If these are missing or the source is an unknown expert, question it! Does the evidence prove something really happened? Or has it been selected or even 'twisted' to back up a viewpoint?
5. Look out for fake images
Modern editing software has made it easy for people to create fake images that look professional and real. But there are some warning signs. Strange shadows on the image, for example, or jagged edges around a figure. Google Reverse Image Search helps you check whether the image has been altered or used in the wrong context.
6. Check that it 'sounds right'
Bear in mind fake news is often designed to ‘feed’ your biases, hopes or fears. Use your common sense. For example, it's unlikely your favourite designer brand is giving away free dresses to everyone who turns up to its stores.
If the evidence suggests that the information you have is fake, or if you have any doubts about it, avoid sharing it with others and spreading misinformation.
The central point of critical thinking is to develop and trust your skills of discernment and to develop your ‘gut instinct’ – the development of your own self-awareness and intuitive sense.
More tools and resources to develop critical thinking skills