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How to make critical thinking more likely

4 min read: I help people develop the critical thinking skills they need to be able to understand and influence behaviour in organisations. But successful implementation is not just about giving people new skills, its about taking into account human nature and designing work processes that make it more likely we step back and analyse what's actually going on rather than rely on intuition.

If you’re interested in behaviour change you’ve probably come across behavioural economics. It’s an area that’s popularising the field of behavioural science and the idea that humans are not the rational decision makers we once thought they were. One of the more well-known publications is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The idea is that we have two parts of the brain involved in decision making: system 1 is the instinctive brain and system 2 is the conscious part of the brain.

That’s the bit where you live and that you can directly observe through your thoughts.

What’s interesting is that system 1 is working all of the time and can have huge impact on our decision making and behaviour and yet we are largely unaware of it.

Research psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a team of firefighters that enter a house where a kitchen is on fire. Soon after entering the commander hears himself shout for everyone to get out, without even realising why. The floor collapses almost the instant they exit the building. Only later on does the commander realise that the fire was much quieter than usual and his ears unusually hot, triggering his sixth sense of danger. He’s no idea what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. It turned out the fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement.

This is what we often term as intuition, knowing something before you even know it. And in this case it worked well.

Sometimes in our courses we use the following example to enable people to observe their own intuition at work. Have a go yourself and consider the following problem:

A bat and ball cost £1.10. The bat costs £1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Now, I don’t know about you, but even though I know the answer to this, I still want to say 10p. You probably know this is a trick question, but for most of you that are not practising maths on a daily basis, your brain is still shouting 10p even though you suspect it’s a set up. The answer is of course 5p. In this case your intuition is likely telling you the wrong thing.

This flawed process happens many times each day in the situations we face at home and at work. We observe a situation and without even being conscious of it our brain jumps to the wrong conclusion and off we go.

So what influences whether intuition is to be trusted or not?

According to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist with a keen interest in decision making in organisations, it turns out that expertise is really no more that the recognition and appropriate response to a cue or signal in the environment. The situation provides a cue, this cue gives the expert access to information stored in memory and the information provides an answer.

Expert intuition is therefore when we are able to instinctively recognise cues in the environment and respond accordingly.

Now the 10,000 hour rule for the acquisition of expertise was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. He suggested that in order to become a world class expert in any field, you need about 10,000 hours practice. The concept can be traced back to a paper from Anders Ericsson, an internationally recognised as a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance.

However, Ericsson points out that 10,000 is just an average and it’s really the quality of the practice that is important.

In order to develop reliable expertise we need an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable and an opportunity to learn these regularities through practice.

But in many roles the environment is simply not regular enough or there are just not enough opportunities to practice due to the rare occurrence of specific events that are required to acquire reliable expert intuition.

Leadership is more like this. There are so many variables in the environment, we encounter slightly different problems and people each time, that it is unlikely that we will have acquired the required expertise to an intuitive level. Therefore it may be working against us and sending us in the wrong direction.

Telling us it’s 10p when in fact its 5p.

Over that last 12 years I have learnt that left to nature people often develop a sense of intuition as to whether someone is a good guy or not. They rarely acquire reliable intuition as to the role of the work environment and its impact on that individuals performance.

When managers learn a little bit about human nature, we give them the equivalent of basic maths to solve the bat and ball equation. And yet even with A level maths my brain still tells me its 10p. And even with a knowledge of human behaviour our brain may still be telling is it’s a problem with the performer rather than the environment.

We need to design for human nature and build in prompts that encourage critical thinking.

If we want to make it more likely that people take a step back and analyse what’s actually driving behaviour, before jumping to a solution, then we need to design for human nature and build in prompts that encourage critical thinking, encouraging the manager or the team to do the equivalent of taking a minute to grab a pen and pencil and work out the answer to the bat and ball problem.

So let’s write behaviour analyses into our HR processes, our safety processes, our change programmes, any activity in our organisations where we want to make it more likely that people take a step back and analyse what’s actually driving behaviour rather than jumping to a flawed conclusions.

And if you are still distracted by the bat and ball problem, go grab a pen and pencil and work it out.

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