Closing the skills gap for graduate employees


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Many graduates lack strong critical thinking skills. But using a framework can boost these skills among graduate employees and benefit businesses


It is common for graduate employees to begin their formal career journey with skills gaps in a range of areas. But research suggests that crucial skills gaps exist in areas related to critical thinking. Although talent strategies in many workplaces seek employees who are creative, collaborative and can quickly engage in effective decision-making and problem-solving, these thinking skills often fall short of the mark and tend to have less formal development plans in place.

This article considers the development of graduate employees’ critical thinking skills. A questioning framework will be presented as a lens through which the importance of critical thinking skills for graduate employees can be used and modified.

What’s new

Stories of change are common in organisations. Whether change relates to demographics; employee profiles; work practices; external influences led by politics, economics, digitisation or other societal pressures; the stories we tell and the stories we hear tend to focus on the need for people to be flexible and adaptable.

Change can have a negative impact on resilience at both an individual and an organisational level. In building up resilience to help people cope with change and ambiguity, trends are suggesting (e.g. Forbes, 2020) a renewed focus on the development of skills relating to intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal communication and the alignment of organisational purpose and vision.

A report published by LinkedIn (Lefkowitz, 2018) suggested that skills that were traditionally valued now have a shorter lifespan, thanks in part to automation, and that people are being hired more often because of their attitude, levels of openness and general ability to cope with pace and change.

Being able to think critically will enhance performance in environments that allow for greater autonomy or in which high demands, complexity and ambiguity are key features.

A useful definition of critical thinking is ‘the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desired outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned and goal-directed’ (Halpern, 2003). This definition reminds us that critical thinking is not about thinking in one specific way, but rather flexibility of mind.

Having an understanding that approaches to how we make decisions or even how methods of communication may differ from one context to the next can help people to deal more effectively with 21st century workplace demands.

Critical thinking helps us to work out the best solution for the given situation. It reminds us too that although thinking is often associated with our heads, the place for attitude and emotion should not be discounted when thinking critically.

Key findings

What thinking skills are valued in your organisation? What type of thinking is modelled by leaders? How do thinking skills align to the development of intra- and interpersonal skills? How do current behaviours support the use or development of critical thinking skills? These questions serve to begin a discussion on critical thinking at a strategic level.

By understanding the value that the organisation places on critical thinking, decisions can then be made on areas for development, measurement and recognition. Productivity, engagement and resilience can be enhanced through an explicit focus on developing graduate employees’ thinking skills especially in relation to: questioning, personal/professional goal setting, planning, evaluation, self-evaluation, understanding alternative perspectives, synthesis, decision making (accountability and responsibility), self-regulation and reflection.

Depending on the nature and culture of the organisation the importance placed on these skills will differ. However, the valuable lesson is that when it comes to new graduates, by ensuring they understand the relevance of these skills, and providing opportunities for practice and learning from feedback, gaps in thinking and performance will narrow more quickly.

Questioning: a skill for continuous development

Questioning is a skill and it directly relates to critical thinking. Yet we often inaccurately assume that a) our new graduate employees are confident in their questioning abilities and/or b) that the environment will support the development of this skill over time.

While experience and maturity can influence this skill, not all environments are conducive to supporting its development. Critical thinking is about asking different types of questions, depending on the task or the situation.

However, we know that we lose confidence in our ability to ask questions as we progress through formal education, and on entering the workplace our confidence and perceived capability of questioning tends to be at its lowest. This gap in the questioning skill can impede the performance of a graduate employee.

There are many benefits associated with explicitly focusing on developing questioning including: efficient improvements in levels of comprehension and knowledge; enhanced understanding of approaches, processes and procedures; deeper engagement in collaboration; enhanced clarity of and engagement with feedback processes; and enhanced ability to engage in reflective practice. Alongside these benefits, questioning is also associated with higher levels of creativity, curiosity and openness.

Questioning is one of the key conditions that can help creativity to flourish. Creativity is not only reserved for big innovation challenges, but as a core skill to cope effectively with the demands of ambiguity and complexity. Asking questions and allowing space for genuine curiosity enables problem-solving and supports a climate for continuous learning (Galli et al., 2018).

One of the most effective approaches for enhancing questioning skills is modelling. Modelling allows the graduate employee to learn firsthand how questions are used within the organisational context. Modelling sends clear signals to the new employee on the types of questioning behaviours that are valued and rewarded.

The questioning framework below has been designed to support you in reflection on how questioning, as a critical thinking skill, is considered and could be enhanced within your organisation.

Questioning is a potential starting point for the explicit development of graduate employees’ critical thinking. Research suggests that there are gaps in graduates’ levels of confidence in evaluating information and making judgements or decisions, which can also be a focus for development.

Evaluation: Awareness of multiple perspectives

Not all situations that require us to make judgements or decisions are equal. Variables such as time, quality of information, understanding of implications, level of responsibility for outcome and even resources can differ from one context to the next.

Evaluation is our ability to make sense of the relevant available factors with a view to forming a judgement, and critical thinking is deemed an essential part of the evaluation process regardless of the quality of the conditions in place.

With respect to evaluation, critical thinking can help us to make judgements or decisions more confidently. It should be employed in situations where data is missing as much as it should be applied where the quality of available information is superior.

Applying critical thinking to evaluation can alert us to the presence of unconscious bias, which typically negatively affects the quality of our decision-making process. It can also help us appreciate and empathise with differing or alternative perspectives (Goldstein et al., 2014).

Applying critical thinking to our evaluation practice takes time and conscious effort, which can be challenging in the fast-paced and reactive nature of many 21st century organisations. For graduate employees, allowing them space and time to consider their current habits when it comes to evaluation is a useful exercise for focusing on enhancing self-awareness. It is also useful in gathering ideas for either maintaining positive approaches or addressing shortcomings in evaluation practice.

Apart from enhanced decision-making processes and outputs, developing skills associated with evaluation can support graduates in building their confidence to have robust and challenging conversations with peers and colleagues who hold different but equally valid perspectives.

Dedicating time to this will allow the graduate to gain competence in understanding and empathising through meaningful conversation. It also allows a positive challenge of positions they deem to have relevance and helps them to articulate more clearly why a certain approach should or should not be followed.

Evaluation and decision-making do not come naturally to all and may result in anxiety, lack of willingness to accept responsibility or even avoidance. One starting point could be to modify the questioning framework above for use with evaluation.

As the graduate employee becomes more aware of how evaluations or decisions are made at different levels of the organisation, the more likely they are to develop their strengths. Providing opportunities for practice, meaningful feedback and recognition are key considerations for the development of this thinking skill.

As mentioned earlier, questioning underpins how we evaluate our choices, our information, the views of others and the judgements we ultimately make. In the context of evaluation questioning can have a powerful developmental effect on self-regulation (our evaluation of our behaviour choices in a given context) and reflection (considered, continuous personal improvement).

From research to reality

Given the pace of work, the types of challenges facing organisations and the need for people to be comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, critical thinking is as relevant today as it ever was.

A crucial point that echoes from the skills reports for the past decade suggests that in the context of talent attraction, development and retention, thinking skills will remain a valuable commodity. Therefore, investing in support mechanisms designed to explicitly help graduate employees develop confidence and competence are likely to reap benefits for your organisation as a whole.

Potential areas for support could be: how to think through challenges, how to think responsibly (in terms of stepping into leadership, alignment to purpose and contributing to societal legacy), how to understand aspects of self, how to think about and build relationships with others and how to think about performance and continuous improvement.

As is the case with all development programmes, gaining clarity on how the focus on developing graduate employees’ critical thinking can fit with the overall organisational culture is a positive first step. Members from the HR team are often best placed to advise on this.

Thinking should be an integrated part of initiatives rather than something that is overlaid or an adjunct to other programmes. It is a common and often valid view that what gets measured is valued. If skills related to critical thinking are genuinely appreciated is there a way for them to be promoted and recognised (formally or informally) within the organisation?

In building your understanding of the role that critical thinking can play in your workplace context, consider your response to the first question posed at the start of this article – what thinking skills are valued in your organisation?

Once again, the base questioning framework can be modified to support your ideas around any critical thinking skill. Once you are clear on the skill to be considered, think through your answer in a critical way and build from there.

Arlene Egan is a psychologist, consultant, researcher, speaker and writer who works as a senior consultant at the Roffey Park Institute

This piece appears in the March 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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