Critical Thinking – Asking Why?

Part 8 of our Change Management Consideration Series

See Part 1 – Change Management – What Is It?

See Part 2 – The Nature of People – How Does It Affect What We Do?

See Part 3 – Perceptions – The Unreal Truths

See Part 4 – Culture – This Is How We Do Things

See Part 5 – Behavior Styles – Why Is The Other Person Such A Jerk?

See Part 6 – Behavior Flexing – The Platinum Rule

See Part 7 – Learning Styles – Potential Show Stoppers

Critical thinking is the disciplined process of formulating information by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, and communication. 

The critical thinking process drives mindfulness – the activities of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information as a guide to belief and action.

Without critical thinking, beliefs and actions are misguided, senseless, thoughtless, unmindful – not at all in concert with real situations.

Without critical thinking, beliefs and actions are misguided, senseless, thoughtless, unmindful – not at all in concert with real situations.

We are continuously collecting perceptions from our senses. The effectiveness of what we do with them is affected by our critical thinking, our mindfulness as well as our mindlessness. From this collection and subsequent thinking process (filtering) we create our “database” of beliefs, experiences, concepts of reality, prejudices, desires, expectations, and fears. This database feeds our guidance system for determining what to believe and what we should do. 

Remember earlier, in Part 1 – Change Management – What Is It?, when a manager in the marketing department was replaced with a new person (Jack)? Fred, the IT project manager of the development effort supporting marketing, elected to send Joan who was the most knowledgeable about the system to bring Jack up to speed on the system capabilities. That first meeting didn’t go well at all (due to behavior style differences), and Joan returned telling her boss Fred (and everyone else) that Jack was a jerk! 

Fred had worked with Joan for a good while and trusted her judgement on the technical aspects of the system. He had given her complete empowerment and she had responded very well. Joan’s relationship with the previous manager (Renee) had been outstanding and the two of them had been very successful together in driving the system forward.

Fred’s immediate reaction to Joan was that Jack indeed was a jerk. They were going to have problems dealing with this person. But Fred was a good critical thinker. He started asking questions. A lot of questions. He reviewed with Joan the various slides in her presentation that had been controversial. Fred saw there was a lot of critical, accurate, well-prepared information in Joan’s presentation. It was easy to conclude that  Jack was indeed a Jerk! But Fred saw another possibility, a communications issue.

The clash was caused by behavior style differences. Neither Joan’s nor Jack’s expectations had been met from the outset in the meeting. Their expectations were based on their own behavior styles. Jack expected her to get to the point quickly in a highly structured manner with detail provided only if he requested it. Joan expected to get to know Jack better and have him know her. She expected to have her detailed knowledge of the system be a foundation for building Jack’s respect and admiration for her. 

But Jack didn’t care about her and saw the small talk as a waste of time. He was confused by her detail, mostly because it bored him, and he didn’t pay attention when people were not addressing exactly what was on his mind. His conclusion, Joan was a tech weenie that had no idea about the importance of the project.

Fred stopped Joan’s ranting by asking some questions. First, he wanted Joan to describe what she saw when she first walked into Jack’s office – his body language, demeanor, tone of voice, speed of conversation, expressions.   What she said and how she said it. What his response was and how he acted.  Fred asked, as she presented her information what questions did Jack ask and how did he appear to respond to the data?

Critical thinking had finally kicked in.  Joan began to see what her boss Fred was seeing. Joan had given way too much detail and had focused on the things Jack didn’t see as significant. Joan had pushed Jack’s frustration buttons and he in turn had pushed hers.

Jack had let his impatience and frustration drive his thinking when dealing with Joan. As he cooled down, reflected on the fracas, and looked over her presentation, he saw good things about the system that he hadn’t seen during the meeting. He still felt the frustration knowing he had to deal with Joan going forward. 

Some of Joan’s associates that had witnessed her tirade upon her return accepted that Jack was a jerk and went on about their business. Their mindless (no critical thinking) acceptance of Joan’s perceptions were to cause additional problems later on in dealing with the marketing department. 

Disagreements and misunderstandings between two people are caused more by the fact that they are not talking about the same problem. They think it is the same problem, but each person views the situation from their own perspective. Their perceptions have been established through a collection process that interprets, evaluates, filters, rejects, and accepts data based on personal beliefs and experiences (discussed in See Part 3 – Perceptions – The Unreal Truths).

We have an automatic enabler for critical thinking, but over the years it has been rendered highly ineffective. It’s curiosity. Remember when as a child we were always asking questions – “Where does smoke go, Why does it get dark, Where does rain come from…”?  Eventually, parents get pretty frustrated with all the questions and begin to dismiss them displaying considerable annoyance at the questioner. So, as we grow up, we get less and less curious.

Activating critical thinking can be as easy as cutting loose our curiosity. When Joan walked into Jack’s office and her expectations were not realized, she immediately took it personally, Self-2 (See Part 2 – The Nature of People – How Does It Affect What We Do? ) was cut loose, and she became hostile towards Jack. It would have been interesting to see the outcome if Jack’s behavior had triggered a calm reaction of curiosity in Joan – “I wonder why he is acting like this? What are the drivers? What are his expectations? What can I do to help him in his new job? What am I missing here?”  Instead, she decided he was a Jerk and proceeded to prove it to herself.

I’ll take you back to the Apollo program for a second. We had worked for some time on a series of equations that could be reduced to a simple program that could be installed onboard the ridiculously small vehicle guidance computer. Simulations on an analog/digital (hybrid) computer had finally come out great. We, myself in particular, felt this was the solution, the only solution. Then, when we had an actual orbital flight, we checked it out using telemetry data from the vehicle, tracking data from the ground, and our mathematical model.  We were way off! Everyone was devastated – we were so upset we couldn’t think straight (talk about adrenalin). We were stunned when Dr. Arnsdorf, our leader, looked at the results as calmly as you can imagine and said, “This is really interesting!” He actually seemed to enjoy the challenge and with tremendous enthusiasm began asking question and putting forth ideas. We were immediately back in the saddle satisfying our curiosity. Big lesson. And after all that, we did make it to the moon (and back).

So, critical thinking seems to be really easy – just cut loose your curiosity and go with it. In practice, it’s not so easy. People don’t like being questioned, usually because they haven’t come to their position using critical thinking and cannot substantiate their position. Remember how the resistance grew to our inquisitions as a child until we gave up on it. Engaging the curiosity of the person we are questioning increases the critical thinking of both parties.

But, alas, curiosity isn’t enough to ensure critical thinking. Our strong tendency is to only ask questions that support our preconceived notions. The first thing we turn to as data roles in from our curiosity is logic. But is it real logic?

We don’t automatically use logic to decide, or for that matter, to think. The Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman explains that our brain’s decision-making center is directly connected to emotions, then to logic. Witness the multitude of commercials from the advertising industry. They seem to have great success with the idea that people decide with emotions and justify their decisions with logic. When insecurity, ego, and panic drive decisions, the consequences are usually disastrous. 

Critical thinking should start with logic. Logic is the unnatural act of knowing which facts we’re putting together to reach our conclusions, and how. We’re hard-wired to assume that if two things happen together, one causes the other. This lets us leap quickly to very wrong conclusions. One study showed that increasing light levels in factories increased productivity. Therefore, does more light mean more productivity? Not in this case! Turned out the workers knew a study was being done and they responded to any change by working harder, since they knew they were being measured—the Hawthorne Effect. 

We also tend to reverse cause and effect. For example, suppose we notice all our high performers have coffee at mid-morning. Can we conclude that coffee causes high performance? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe high performers work so late and are so sleep deprived that they need coffee to wake up. Unless we want a hyper-wired workforce, it’s worth figuring out what really causes what.

We can think critically without knowing where the facts stop, and our own neurotic assumptions begin. We aren’t built to identify our own assumptions without lots of practice, yet the wrong assumptions are fatal. When we don’t know something, we assume. That’s a fancy way of saying, “we make stuff up.” And often, we don’t realize we’re doing it. 

Critical Thinking activates a lot of skills. The collection, processing and logical use of data depends on how well we understand the nature of people, our/their behavior style, our ability to flex our behavior, our/their learning style, and our Situational Awareness (our database of what is really going on). 

How we can create our database and put all this together is the topic of Part 9 – Epilogue – Putting It All Together.

Jim Stanton

Jim Stanton is the founder of Perception Management, Inc., and the creator of the Perception Analysis Methodology (PAM), a non-invasive process for the discovery and validation of the ‘ground truth’ in organizations. Jim has 51 years of experience in improving technology utilization, team building, and managing change. As COO of a $1.1B company, he reengineered global operations saving $45M annually driving internal growth revenues to $3.2B over 8 years. Jim founded 3 successful consulting firms and is an advisor to several CIOs, CEOs and start-up companies. His early career was as a physicist/mathematician developing guidance equations for the first moon landing that led to a strong focus on 'cause and effect' management approaches that work. He is certified in ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), CoBit (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology), Change Management (ODR), and Process Reengineering (CSC Index).