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Critical thinking skills: How to develop them in every employee


While most of our everyday brainpower is dedicated to automatic and routine tasks, employees with sharp critical thinking skills are an essential.

It’s so important that some thought leaders believe a lack of critical thinkers could contribute to business failures.

As a business leader, you might be asking:

  1. Is it possible to teach employees critical thinking?
  2. How can I assess a person’s critical thinking skills?
  3. What are the necessary steps in critical thinking?
  4. How can managers improve critical thinking skills in employees? 

To frame the conversation, let’s define what critical thinking is.

What is critical thinking, and why is it important?

Critical thinking is the ability to organize information logically to make a reasoned judgment. It involves the evaluation of data sources, facts and other research to make a reasonable conclusion by “connecting the dots.”

Critical thinking in the workplace means sorting among useful and arbitrary details to come up with a big-picture perspective that leads to an impactful decision or solution to a problem.

If you find yourself stuck in your career path, many times, it’s due to a lack of critical thinking.

Critical thinking skills are immensely valuable to employers because these employees often become high performers.

Can you teach critical thinking skills?

The answer is yes – you can teach critical thinking. It’s a skill that can be acquired and practiced. Over time, employees can become proficient.

The first step in teaching critical thinking starts with building an awareness of what it is.

There are many resources, courses and books available that teach these skills.  

Encourage employees to begin their education on critical thinking by:

  • Reading a book
  • Researching online resources
  • Taking a class 

Initial awareness can then lead employees to find opportunities, including critical thinking exercises, to practice their new skills.

However, there’s more involved than just learning about critical thinking. Employees must also possess certain traits.

How do you assess a person’s ability to think critically?

Improving an employee’s ability to think critically involves more than their scoring well on job-specific hard skills such as software knowledge, writing ability or mathematical aptitude.

Employees also need emotional intelligence (EQ), the suite of soft skills in demand along with critical thinking, creativity and active listening.

To assess those employees who can develop critical thinking skills, start by looking for the desirable traits critical thinkers possess: 

  • Curious and interested in learning more
  • Sees connections between two different pieces of information that point to a trend or observation
  • Open-minded listener eager to hear different perspectives
  • Self-reflective in examining their own biases or prejudices
  • Naturally creative in crafting solutions
  • Self-confident, as confidence is essential in thinking independently, presenting conclusions and making decisions

The bottom line is to look for a healthy combination of interpersonal skills and cognitive intelligence. These employees have a higher potential for critical thinking than those who excel only in the technical sense.

Be aware of employees who may be deferential to the point of stifling their critical thinking skills. Encourage them to appropriately challenge authority and think outside the box as opposed to getting things “right.”

While some people are more inclined to catch on than others, most employees will benefit from critical thinking training. 

What steps are involved in critical thinking?

Coaching your workforce on critical thinking takes time, as there are different skills needed throughout the process.

Here are the five steps to deliberate thinking:

1. Ask basic questions when you set out to solve a problem.

Forming a hypothesis or proposing an explanation based on limited information is a starting point for any analysis.

2. Collect all information needed to prove your hypothesis.

This could include data that might show a broader range of possible causes and effects.

 Thorough data collection can take time and considerable effort.

3. Question underlying assumptions and examine accepted beliefs.

Look critically at processes that have “always been done this way.”

Try to break complex topics into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it.

4. Evaluate all existing evidence and be open to revising your hypothesis.

Pull in related information for a more systemic, broader understanding of the issue.

5. Develop conclusions based on data and present recommendations.

Drawing conclusions is the final and most crucial part of critical thinking.

How can you coach employees on critical thinking skills?

After the employee has read a book, taken a course or researched online resources to learn what critical thinking is, you can help them understand how critical thinking is used in the workplace. 

  1. Discuss their everyday tasks and have them identify which require critical thinking.
  2. For the highest priority tasks, ask them to launch the five-step approach to solve a problem that they’re facing.
  3. Remind them to examine their cognitive biases. In other words, our brains naturally take mental shortcuts to explain what’s happening when there is limited information. Work to overcome this.
  4. Reinforce their efforts as they look for insights and think about possible conclusions. Help them become a problem solver by encouraging their efforts in proposing a solution.
  5. Offer feedback and help them formulate their thoughts once the employee has preliminary conclusions. Even experienced critical thinkers can struggle with clear communication when it comes time to present findings. 

Don’t be surprised if the person is afraid or nervous. It takes confidence to be a critical thinker, especially when failure is a distinct possibility.

Those who take to critical thinking often enjoy stewing on the problem before reaching conclusions, but they often won’t shy away from making a decision.

These employees typically show signs of a budding high performer. They look for challenges, ask to be on exciting projects and are curious about the strategic direction of the organization.

Not everyone will be confident enough to embrace the final step in critical thinking – making a decision and taking action. In this case, identify the employee’s strengths and reassign them to the position that is a better match. 

In summary

With so many changes in the workplace, almost everyone needs to be a critical thinker. Possessing critical thinking skills will help pave the way to retention and upward mobility for your workforce.

If you’d like more insights into developing a talent strategy for your company, download our complimentary e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.