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Improving the workplace through critical thinking

A lot of the problems in business — and in human resources — can be traced back to a single root: bad thinking. Over the course of my career as a consultant, I’ve seen business leaders make abysmal decisions based on faulty reasoning, and I’ve seen HR managers fail to recognise their own innate biases when addressing employee complaints and hiring decisions.

Let me give you an example. I was once asked to help turn around a large, but faltering, lingerie company in Europe. It didn’t take too long for me to see what the problem was: the company’s strategy assumed that all their customers everywhere pretty much wanted the same products.

Company leaders hadn’t done their research and didn’t really understand how their customers’ preferences varied from country to country.

In the UK, for example, lacy bras in bright colours sold the best; Italians seemed to prefer beige bras without lace; and Americans opted for sports bras in much, much larger numbers.

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Without realising it, they were making business decisions on faulty assumptions and bad information. However, a new strategy based on market-dependent research quickly helped turn things around.


Using feedback to get outside of your own head

One huge advantage consultants have over internal employees is simply that they are outsiders. Consultants obviously won’t know the ins and outs of the business as well as internal managers, but because of that, they also haven’t developed the biases and assumptions that can constrain employee thinking. In short, employees are sometimes too close to the problem.

Now, there are a lot of exercises and routines you can employ to make sure you don’t have blinders on when you’re confronting new problems or challenges.

Perhaps the easiest way to do this is through feedback. Of course, feedback can be tricky. No one likes to be evaluated harshly, and without the proper mechanisms in place the value of feedback may be lost amid negative interpersonal dynamics.

One of the best things an organisation can do is to implement clear and explicit practices and guidelines for feedback between managers and employees.

Feedback should be cooperative rather than antagonistic. It should give both parties the opportunity to reflect on, explain, and refine their reasoning. And it should be explicit, preferably using both written and oral communication to find flaws in reasoning and tease out new solutions.


Making conflict productive

Conflict is inevitable in a workplace. It’s how conflict is managed that can determine whether an organisation thrives. The key to good decision-making in group settings is productive, rather than destructive, conflict.

The best decisions emerge from a process in which ideas have to do battle with one another and prove their worth in group discussions. Without some conflict, organisations fall prey to group-think, where everyone goes along with the consensus.

Again, process is crucial here. The best organisations have clear guidelines and structures in place to ensure decision-making proceeds productively.

Decision-making practices should also include mechanisms for avoiding groupthink, by, for example, soliciting opinions in writing before a discussion and by composing groups with a diverse range of backgrounds and opinions.

Finally, leaders must truly value dissenting opinions. Special consideration should be given to ideas that go against the grain. Even if they lose out in the end, dissenting opinions make the final decision stronger.

Dissenters will also be more likely to buy into a decision that goes against their views if they feel their voice has been genuinely heard.


Thinking through individual goals critically and creatively

A key component of workplace happiness is employees’ sense that they are working toward something, both in terms of overall organisational goals and in terms of personal and professional growth.

Regular reflection on individual goals is vital to sustaining a healthy workplace culture. It also encourages more thoughtful work and allows employees to see day-to-day tasks in a broader context, helping them avoid burnout and monotony.

HR professionals can implement regular systems that allow employees to intentionally formulate these types of goals and understand how their work can be integrated more fully into achieving those goals.

Organisations can also grant employees time to pursue passion projects, like Google has, to give workers the freedom to develop ideas and products beneficial to both themselves and the company.

Creative and critical thinking is integral to organisational success, but it is too often assumed that employees and organisations either have it or they don’t.

The truth is that good thinking can be fostered with intentional, structured systems in place for feedback, argument, and reflection.


Helen Lee Bouygues is founder of the Reboot Foundation