In a world of post-truth, fake news and alternative facts, truth can be elusive—or completely absent. And it can be obscured or distorted in the “echo chambers” populated with friends, family, and colleagues, on social media or face-to-face.

Yet as a leader or manager you (presumably) want to make decisions that are fact-based, and in the best interests of your stakeholders.

More than ever before, therefore, it’s important to develop or maintain ability to question, analyze, and detect inconsistencies or reasoning errors.

In other words now is a good time for a quick refresher on critical thinking.

Portrait of a critical thinker

A critical thinker is curious, reasonably skeptical, with a healthy questioning attitude. Critical thinkers want to learn and seek evidence instead of blindly accepting arguments or conclusions.

Critical thinkers aren’t argumentative or critical of other people, and when faced with convincing contradictory evidence, have the humility to admit they are wrong.

A critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and formulates them clearly
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information
  • Thinks open-mindedly
  • Communicates thoughts effectively
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions

Why is critical thinking important?

The World Economic Forum says that critical thinking will be considered among the top three most important job skills by 2020, ranking higher than creativity and second only to complex problem solving.

Critical thinkers benefit in many ways:

  • You will express your ideas more effectively.
  • Your problem solving ability will grow.
  • You will gain tools for self-evaluation.
  • You will evaluate new ideas more effectively.
  • Thinking clearly, expressing clearly, evaluating ideas more effectively, and solving problems more effectively will all boost your career.

Strange answers aren’t inherently wrong…

…and satisfying answers aren’t inherently right, says astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss. He suggests you apply the principles of scientific skepticism to filter the misinformation and nonsense we encounter each day:

  • Question what you see, read or hear and ask whether it’s consistent with what you already know.
  • If it’s not, examine the information with an inquiring, neutral mind to assess whether your current view needs to change.
  • Recognize your own biases. Be wary of your personal likes and dislikes when you encounter new information.
  • Seek out information from sources that do not necessarily conform to your world view, or preferences.
  • Evaluate sources of information. If a source is repeatedly inaccurate or unreliable, you should be highly suspicious of them in the future.
  • Recognize that your skepticism may really be myopia, closing off possibilities.

Improve your critical thinking skills

In How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills, Katherine Hurst offers five exercises to help with the critical thinking process:

1. Ask basic questions
The better you are at critical thinking, the more fundamental and clear your questions become, such as:

  • What information about this problem do you already have?
  • How do you know the above information?
  • What is your goal? What are you trying to discover, prove, disprove, support or criticize?
  • What might you be overlooking?

2. Adjust your perspective
Read the literature on biases and how they operate. Deliberately expose your mind to other ways of thinking. Instead of sticking to your favored news sources, read a little more widely. Pick up books by authors outside your culture.

3. Think in reverse
Flip what you think you know on its head. So, if you think it’s pretty obvious that A caused B, ask yourself “But what if B caused A?”

4. Develop foresight
Take the time to look at all angles of a potential decision. Making a pro and con list can also boost your foresight, making you much better at predicting outcomes.

Today’s world offers a lot of opportunities to practice and hone your critical thinking skills. With those skills you can join the vanguard of millions exposing “alternative facts,” “post-truth,” and the real “fake news.”