Critical thinking is a key skill for board directors. But does that mean a director is expected to be constantly negative, cynical, and hyper-critical?
Not at all.
Critical thinking isn’t about criticizing. It’s about how you approach problems, issues, and arguments. It’s about asking questions like ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ or ‘What happens if?’ It’s about objectivity, having an open mind, and relying on evidence to understand what’s really going on.
And when your understanding is deeper, your contribution to the board’s decision-making can be that much more valuable.
That’s why, as a savvy director, it’s important to bring a critical thinking mindset to your board work.
“Critical thinking is skeptical without being cynical. It is open-minded without being wishy-washy. It is analytical without being nitpicky.” – Peter Facione, Researcher and consultant
What is critical thinking? There are some complicated, academic definitions out there. But, put simply, critical thinking is the kind of thinking where you objectively analyze events, information, and arguments, approach an issue from different sides, and form conclusions based on your analysis.
Critical thinkers are able to:
As directors, we need to do more than just read a package of material before a board meeting. We should inform ourselves about anything we’re not sure of and spend time reflecting on our own thoughts. We might even start to form an opinion at this stage, while still leaving ourselves open to other points of view that might emerge at the board meeting.
You might be considering a management proposal as part of your meeting PREP. One thing to look for is evidence that they didn’t jump directly from problem to solution, that they followed a critical thinking process to come to a sound solution.
Our job as directors includes questioning the relevance, reliability, authority, and purpose of what we read, see, and hear – to seek the truth, rather than accepting things without questioning.
Let’s imagine that your board package includes a proposal for a large capital project, such as a new IT system. You should expect to see a logical process much like this one:
“Critical thinking is certainly a skill but when possessed as a mindset – a playful and humble willingness – it shifts from a labor to an art. It asks, ‘Is this true? By what standard?’” – Terry Heick, founder of TeachThought
Applying a critical thinking mindset to your board work means you’re willing to examine the facts, educate yourself about gaps in your understanding, and attempt an unbiased analysis of the information - all in a rational, clear-headed manner.
Being able to actually make use of that mindset in an effective way requires certain thinking skills - interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.
Interpretation skills. Being able to categorize, decode significance, clarify, and comprehend the meaning of experiences, situations, or data. For example, paraphrasing someone else’s idea to bring more clarity to a discussion.
Analytical skills. Being able to examine ideas and information, consider all aspects of a problem, and make connections between ideas. For example, identifying the unstated assumptions in an argument.
Evaluation skills. Being able to assess the credibility of claims, the quality of arguments, and the strength of the relationship among them. For example, judging if a particular argument is relevant to the situation.
Inference skills. Being able to question the evidence, come up with alternatives, draw valid conclusions, and form hypotheses. For example, predicting what could happen next based on current facts.
Explanation skills. Being able to state results, justify reasoning, and present cogent arguments. For example, clearly stating the factors you used to judge the quality of a presentation.
Self-regulation skills. Being able to monitor your own thinking with a view to questioning, confirming, or correcting your reasoning or conclusions. For example, examining your own views on an issue to look for personal bias or self-interest.
In the boardroom, the best way to apply these critical thinking skills is with questions like these:
If you’re not sure, consider this list.
If you’re not happy with your current skills, or you feel that you’re not applying them consistently, you’re not alone. One reason we need to consciously improve our critical thinking is simply the way our brains work – we’re all prone to mental shortcuts and flawed reasoning at times. Another reason is that we’re constantly bombarded by huge amounts of information – and it gets hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
The good news is that your critical thinking can be strengthened through self-discipline and practice. We all have lots of opportunity to practice these behaviors in our personal life. Doing so will make it easier to bring a critical thinking mindset to our boardrooms.
Vet Information – Use skepticism when reviewing information from news stories, articles, and social media.
Ask Questions - Channel your inner child and ask lots of ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘why’ questions.
Listen Actively - Deep listening is a way of opening ourselves to a wide array of potential solutions.
Seek Diversity - The more we listen only to the people who share our views, the more polarized our views become.
Let it Soak - A thoughtful conclusion or question needs time.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.
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