By Judy Chartrand, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Pearson TalentLens
How do you think at work? Are you clear and efficient or more like a gerbil on a wheel? Are you sometimes proactive, sometimes reactive? If your organization is like most, you are faced with complexity, ambiguity, and frequent change, and you probably use a variety of thinking styles to cope, but you don’t necessarily use those different styles equally well. Most people are really good at a few, but rarely use others, which limits options and hinders performance. It is a little bit like having a tool kit that contains only a hammer; you are not fully equipped to deal with the challenges that come your way each day. To survive and thrive, you need to have ready access to a full set of thinking tools.
You might be wondering exactly how thinking styles are related to better results. That is a good critical thinking question. A few years ago, I was developing critical thinking training material and it became apparent that thinking styles—habits or dispositions—play an important role in skill acquisition, such as the ability to evaluate information or draw accurate conclusions. The research literature supports this view, namely, that having the right mindset (thinking styles) helps you master the skill set (thinking skills), and together they provide a foundation for building key competencies, such as decision-making, problem-solving, planning, creativity, and strategic thinking. And these are the skills driving our 21st century workplace.
7 Critical Thinking Styles
So you know thinking styles are related to thinking skills, but what exactly are thinking styles? Another good question. I did a search and found that several assessment tools that claimed to measure thinking styles strayed from the concept by adding interpersonal qualities (extraversion/introversion) and other extraneous material into the mix. I kept looking and found that thinking styles are like gold nuggets, valuable but not necessarily easy to find. Finally, I went back to the critical thinking literature and found a report based on the consensus of 46 critical thinking experts. This group of academics listed several dispositions or personal qualities associated with good critical thinking, such as being open-minded and inquisitive. This body of work became my pan of gold. I sifted through the concepts and decided to polish them by applying measurement expertise. My background is in test development, and the trick is writing items that capture dispositions or habits and represent cognitively driven behaviors or outcomes. The end result was the My Thinking Styles (MTS) assessment, which measures seven different thinking styles:
- Analytical: Organized, planful, methodical
- Inquisitive: Curious, asks questions, probes deeply
- Insightful: Steadfast, thinks before speaking, perseveres
- Open-Minded: Good listener, respects differences, adaptable
- Systematic: Strategic, connects ideas, sees the big picture
- Timely: Mobilizes resources, multitasks, takes initiative
- Truth-Seeking: Frank, independent, asks the tough questions
All seven styles are positive, and each in its own way supports the development of thinking skills. For example, being open-minded makes it easier to learn how to take a broader perspective and not get locked into a view that is narrowly defined by personal biases or faulty assumptions. Being analytical makes it easier to learn how to organize information and notice gaps and inaccuracies. Comfortably accessing different styles creates a well-rounded foundation upon which people can clarify intentions, evaluate information, and make decisions.
Frequently Used Styles
You might be wondering (especially if you’re inquisitive) which styles do people use most frequently? Even closer to home, which thinking styles do training professionals use most frequently? A recent Training magazine/Pearson TalentLens Webinar gave us an opportunity to answer the question. More than 1,000 training professionals took the MTS assessment, including a sub-group who work in organizations named to the 2012 Training Top 125. Download the file below for the results.
It is interesting to see the side-by-side comparison of the larger Training magazine group and the Top 125. As expected, both groups have the same top three preferred styles, but the order is somewhat different. The most preferred style of the larger group is open-minded, which means that they are comfortable seeking different perspectives, suspending judgment, and using a fair-minded approach. The most preferred style of the Top 125 is systematic, which means they like to put information into context, frame the context, and see how the pieces fits together.
The Top 125ers were more likely to use a variety of styles than the large group. In addition to systematic, they were also more likely to use timely, insightful, and inquisitive styles. In essence, they were more likely to consider how to mobilize resources, stand back and reflect before acting, and to ask more questions before forming judgments. In general, it appears the Top 125 has a broad array of thinking styles at its disposal.
As part of this study, we wanted to connect thinking styles and skills, so we asked participants to rate their level of critical thinking skills. Both groups rated themselves favorably, but an eye-opening 87 percent of the Top 125 described their thinking skills as “Above Average to Exceptional,” whereas 75 percent of the larger group saw themselves that way. As a cautionary note, people often rates themselves favorably, but more objective data suggest that critical thinking is not a strength for most employees. On a more positive note, higher use of thinking styles was positively associated with higher skills ratings.
5 Steps to Thinking Better
Ultimately, though, the $64,000 question is: “Can you think better for better results?” The answer is, “Yes,” but you need to practice. Let’s look at how you can think better by using five steps:
- Stop and think about your thinking. What are you trying to achieve? Is the situation urgent? What are the mental resources you need to tackle this situation? Step back, reflect, and set direction. Using an insightful thinking style is particularly helpful at this step.
- Recognize assumptions that may not be true. Sort out the facts from opinions. What do you know to be true? What don’t you know? What are others seeing? Clarity is the goal of this step, and using inquisitive and truth-seeking styles fosters clarity.
- Evaluate information in a systematic and objective way. Is the information relevant, given what you are trying to achieve? Are you being objective? How credible are your sources? Sift through the information, prioritize, organize, and evaluate. Using systematic and analytical styles is particularly helpful at this step.
- Draw conclusions that match the information at hand. Are you missing anything? Does this conclusion match what you are trying to achieve? The goal is to find that balance, not over-generalizing, not jumping to conclusions, but logically tying the input and the output. Using analytical and systematic styles is helpful at this step.
- Develop a plan of action that brings your decision to life. What are the consequences of this decision? What types of resources are needed? Determine the actions that need to be taken. Using a timely style is particularly helpful for this step.
Collective Critical Thinking
Having this model in your head will make it easier to learn and implement effective thinking behaviors, and, of course, skill will come with practice. It is worth the effort, because feeling confident and being clear and efficient is better than being the gerbil on the wheel.
If you don’t know your thinking styles preferences, learn them and learn how to leverage them so it is easier to practice the right behaviors. You can access the My Thinking Styles assessment and development report at http://www.ThinkWatson.com. The report is filled with practical development suggestions.
Work settings are often complicated and hectic, but thankfully the human brain is the great mediator. It is accessible 24×7, an amazing tool you can harness for both professional and personal benefit. When you bring critical thinking into your organization, and thinking improves at a collective level, the benefits are exponential—better decisions, better problem-solving, and better performance across the organization. And for you personally, increasing your mental efficiency, even a little, increases your confidence, lowers stress, and enhances your ability to thrive. Learn how you think and get better results.
Judy Chartrand, Ph.D., is the chief scientist at Pearson TalentLens, where she works with corporate and consulting clients, helping them implement assessment solutions that foster employee development, teambuilding, retention, high-potential engagement, career management, and succession planning. She received an Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association for her work in the career development field.