Critical Thinking Is More Willingness Than Ability

The willingness to think critically trumps ability every time.  Critical thinking is a form of engagement that happens on its own in a culture and environment free of obstacles preventing it.  If the organizations focuses on training people on the ability to think critically when they are not willing to think critically, the effort goes nowhere.  Conversely, if you want people to be more engaged with thinking critically, it is absolutely imperative that you first understand what makes them willing to think critically and inspire that, and unwilling to think critically and remove those obstacles.

There are a good number of things that inhibit or engage the willingness of any individual to think critically because critical thinking is more often a dynamic, not an ability.  Think of it like a ball rolling downhill.  Do you have to train a balls ability to roll downhill, or do you just have to remove the obstacles preventing the ball from rolling downhill?  Removing obstacle allows the ball to do what it can already do.  People will naturally think more critically if obstacles are removed that prevent critical thinking  from naturally rolling on its own.  Those obstacles come in the form of emotions, beliefs, habits, and cares.


Lets start with emotional obstacles.  A single emotional obstacle like fear can either shut down or inspire critical thinking.  A fearful intruder in your home can cause a person to hide in a dark corner even when they have the ability to get away.  Remove or manage the fear, and that same person locks themselves in a protected room and calls 911.  Anger, defensiveness, and resentment are all powerful emotional critical thinking obstacles.  An employee who is angry at their boss or the organization is not naturally willing to solve a problem even when they are walking out of a training event focused on critical thinking ability.  The feeling of resentment actually drives people past stifling critical thinking to an emotional place full of feeling and void of critical thought.  If you want to move a resentful person to performance, don’t waste your time developing their critical thinking, instead give them time and a platform to voice their issues so this emotional barrier to critical thinking is removed.


Beliefs play a dual role and are arguably the most powerful obstacles and the most inspiring forces influencing critical thinking.  Employees who believe their boss steals their ideas and presents them as their own have no incentive to think critically.  They actually have a disincentive to critically think.  The lack of purpose or a connection with one’s value to the team drives employees to default to performing to a bare minimum standard.  An employee who believes their contributions don’t matter don’t need to think.  Employees who believe the company actually lives by its values and believes their individual value has meaning is inspired to keep the belief going by problem solving, innovating, and critically thinking about cost saving measures.  With no barriers, the critical thinking is becoming real all by itself.  It becomes the ball that naturally rolls downhill.


Think of the obstacles of indifference with people who don’t care.  All of the critical thinking in the world won’t move the indifferent mind.  Take an employee who is also a parent.  Perhaps at work they don’t problem solve, think ahead of issues to avoid them, and turn in incomplete work.  They regularly do stupid stuff.  But as a parent of a two-year-old they want to keep their child safe because they care.  They install cabinet locks, put harmful chemicals up high, keep a close eye on their child in the park, and put sharp objects out of reach.  Their care for a child makes them willing to think critically.  If you need an employee to think more critically, put the ability training aside and give them a reason to care.


Enabler leaders can create anti critical thinking habits individually or on a whole team level, and curiously blame employees whom they have enabled to not critically think.  This can show up when a boss always develops the meeting agenda instead of delegating the task, controls every aspect of production or performance, doesn’t listen or take feedback, and takes on a “know it all” persona.  Take just the meeting agenda issue.  There is no point in an employee considering meeting flow, preparation, notifying all relevant departments or representatives, printing a contract, or juggling schedules if the boss always does it.  The employee has been taught a habit of non-critical thinking, and this habit is an obstacle.


The willingness to critically think precedes the ability.  Critical thinking is often present but unseen because it’s natural tendency to think has an obstacle preventing it.  Leaders who want to develop critical thinking on their teams are better served by removing the obstacles to critical thinking before developing ability.