Wanted: Critical Thinking - Saint Mary's University of Minnesota Skip to Main Content

2024 Minneapolis Graduate Commencement information and livestream
First year students submit deposit here

Go Back

Wanted: Critical Thinking

October 17, 2016

University Services MAOL

A 20081 study cited flawed critical thinking as a significant contributor to the 2003 loss of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle, killing all seven crew members. More recent examples of flawed and costly critical thinking include the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the 2007 mortgage banking collapse, and failed military interventions around the globe.

Common contributors included the inability to examine assumptions, limited information or perspectives, reacting and settling for apparent solutions too quickly, inability to project consequences, and the tendency to repeat past mistakes. Losses need not be so dramatic or costly to reveal the need for more and better critical thinking in our schools, organizations, and communities. Given today’s global, social, and economic challenges and election season political rhetoric bombardment, the need for personal and collective critical thinking skills has likely never been greater.

David Moore2 defined critical thinking as “a deliberate meta-cognitive (thinking about thinking) and cognitive (thinking) act whereby a person reflects on the quality of the reasoning process simultaneously while reasoning to a conclusion. The thinker has two equally important goals: coming to a solution and improving how she or he reasons.” [Moore, 2006, italics in original]

This suggests that an essential foundation for critical thinking is awareness of how we think – our thinking style, strengths, and limitations. One popular measure of thinking style is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which among other dimensions, reflects a preference for facts and details (“Sensing”) vs. big-picture patterns and connections of ideas (“Intuition”). If aware that I will not naturally focus on facts and details, I can compensate by working harder to uncover them and seeking the assistance of others so inclined. “Sensing” types can benefit by tapping my more natural style of “connecting the dots” and ability to detect patterns. Another resource for increasing awareness of thinking styles is the Watson-Glaser Profile, a highly respected assessment of critical thinking capabilities.

Pursuing a leadership role within an organization?

Earn your M.A. in Leadership Organization online from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

There is not only safety in numbers but wisdom as well. One person with highly developed critical thinking capabilities is an asset; a team, organization, or community with comparable capabilities is a treasure. We “must use not only all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow,” to paraphrase President Woodrow Wilson. In addition to knowing and respecting different thinking styles, we must cultivate relationships and cultures where they are leveraged. We can be confident that at Lehman Brothers, running up to the mortgage banking collapse and Volkswagen pre-emissions scandal, diverse and dissenting voices were either reluctant to speak up or dismissed (figuratively or literally).

Here are some additional strategies for sharpening our critical-thinking capability:

  • Examine assumptions; question prior experience and knowledge. Especially given today’s rapid rate of change and shifting global dynamics, chances are that what has been true may no longer be accurate. Ask what conditions or changes might invalidate assumptions or prior experience and knowledge; what are the chances of those conditions or changes, and how might that affect the situation? How might you see a problem differently if you didn’t know what you know now? (Mark Twain was right: “It isn’t what we don’t know that will get us in trouble; it’s what we know that just isn’t so!”)
  • Ask challenging questions that stimulate thinking. A few examples are in the paragraph above. Others include “What information or perspectives might we be missing?” and “In what ways might what I think/believe be wrong?” or “In what ways might the opposite be right?” The intent of questioning should be opening up to new information, perspectives, possibilities, and considerations. In this vein, for example, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” is not a rhetorical question but one to be taken seriously, along with consideration of what to do if the worst thing happens. Asking challenging questions does not mean personally challenging those with whom we disagree or have unpopular opinions; we need to ask questions in ways that invite them to share their thinking in a safe environment.
  • Slow down. In our rush, we commonly settle for the first reasonable solution or response for a quick resolution. Solid critical thinking is characterized by more than one correct answer. It requires time to generate more alternatives and evaluate each critically. It takes far more time to undo the damage from a wrong decision than to take extra time thinking through what would avoid damage in the first place.
  • Use clear criteria. Specifically, what problem do we want to solve or what desired outcomes? Disagreements about relevant factors or potential solutions are sometimes based on different understandings of objectives or criteria for success.
  • Be conscious of filters and biases; we all have them. Closely related to self-awareness of thinking style is greater consciousness of how we interpret information and communication based on experience, preferences, hopes, or associations. Examining why we interpret things as we do and why we believe or value what we do is helpful. Of course, it’s useful to help others do the same. Then we can get closer to determining what’s true. Humility is essential here; we must acknowledge that others’ experiences and perspectives are valid.
  • Manage emotions. We cannot deny feelings; they are. However, we can be more aware of our emotions and how they may influence judgment. Personal likes and dislikes are separate matters from what might be proper or prudent. Have we heard and seriously considered what might be valid input from someone we dislike? Are we being unduly influenced by someone we like?
  • Fact check. Intentional or not, what sounds convincing may not be true; political campaigns offer ample evidence if we pay attention to fact-checkers and “Pinocchio scales.” Repetition, reputation, delivery, and other factors can be influential but do not correlate with truth; in essential matters, we must be our fact-checkers by consulting multiple sources and critically evaluating each claim.
  • Examine consequences. The “law of unintended consequences” is often more accurately the “law of unimagined consequences;” yes, we didn’t intend inevitable consequences, but if we had thought things through more carefully, we likely wouldn’t be experiencing the adverse effects. We need to answer the question “Whom or what will/may be affected by a decision or action?” from multiple perspectives and realistically assess the likelihood. Having gotten that far, some neglect the next important step: constructing scenarios of potential second, third, or even fourth-order consequences and their possibilities.
  • Step away from the “cave.” In his Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato describes a group of prisoners chained to a cave wall, unable to see actual objects outside the cave entrance and only their shadows from the sun’s light. Critical thinking requires stepping away from our “wall” or “cave” and into the light generated from alternate viewpoints, data, and interpretations.
  • In his 2011 TED talk3, “Beware of online internet filters,” Eli Pariser warns of internet algorithms used by social media platforms that filter searches without our knowledge based on our prior search history and postings. The effect, of course, is more concentrated exposure to what we already believe or think we know; conservatives reinforce their conservative views, and liberals support their liberal views, for example. If we are not careful and not actively seeking alternate perspectives, we, therefore, fashion our own “cave” with limited awareness of reality. 

Improving critical-thinking capacities will be vital for improving our organizations’ competitiveness and sustainability, building strong communities, strengthening our democracy, and resolving global challenges.

The online Master’s in Organizational Leadership program at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota builds critical-thinking capacity throughout the program; critical thinking is a particular focus in its first semester Critical Thinking and Research course.

About the Author

Al Watts is a former instructor in the Masters in Organizational Leadership program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. For 35 years, his consulting practice has been focused on helping organizations craft more clarity, commitment, and alignment around their purpose, principles, and strategic priorities. He is the author of Navigating Integrity – Transforming Business as Usual into Business at its Best, which expands on how leaders can leverage integrity to achieve exceptional results.


  1. Niewoehner, Robert J., Captain, U.S. Navy, Ph.D., and Steidle, Craig E., Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (ret.), U.S. Naval Academy. The Loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia: Portaging Leadership Lessons with a Critical Thinking Model. Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-loss-of-the-space-shuttle-columbia-portaging-leadership-lessons-with-a-critical-thinking-model/833.
  2. Moore, David T. Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis, Joint Military Intelligence College, Occasional Paper 14, May 2006, pg. 2.
  3. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.