Sometimes we confuse critical thinking with just being critical. There’s nothing about critical thinking that says you have to be a jerk. In fact, really useful critical thinking inspires the hearer to raise the bar (vs. defend himself).  But many hours are wasted because we get confused about how best to apply critical thinking.

Here are a few examples I see often when doing planning work with smart people (especially smart people):

  • The Leadership Team Jousting Match – A leadership team is deliberating a course of action. One team member offers an idea.  Someone else (often a perceived rival) decides to take the opposing view, not because there are substantive differences but simply to try to prove that his ideas are superior to his peer’s.  The meeting becomes a side-show in the two colleagues’ competition for visibility and influence.  Wasted energy seeps from the team – as demonstrated by the rolling eyes of perceptive members in the team.
  • The “Needs-to-be-Superior” Leader – A leader is reviewing the draft work product from one of her team members.  She has a reputation for being difficult to please and being crazy smart – a reputation she quietly nurtures because it keeps everyone off balance.  Though she gave little guidance to her team member, she now works hard to mark up the draft, looking for any possible imperfection to amplify.  What she doesn’t know is that her team members now intentionally leave mistakes in their work to indulge her little critical pleasure.  It’s wasted effort.
  • The “Stuff-it” Executive – A leader is working with his team to refine the organization’s long-range plan.  He’s quite concerned about the direction they are going, but he’s concerned about the backlash he might get if he asks tough questions.  So he jams his concerns and frustration down deeper into his gut.  He fails to consider that it will come out – just in a less controlled and less constructive way.  (And you tell me – do you think his people don’t notice his unease?)

I wrote several posts ago about asking yourself, “Is it worth it?” when you feel irritation in a meeting.  There are times when it is worth it – when asking certain questions will make a big difference.  Here are few effective questions I’ve picked up from clients and colleagues over the years:

  • What assumptions underlie your position?
  • Which of those assumptions are most important to the position?  How would your position change if they proved false (or not fully true)?
  • What have you done to test your assumptions? What else could we do?

Now, the trick, of course, is to ask questions like these in ways that don’t seem attacking to others – to have them believe that you are truly trying to stretch the idea (and maybe even stretch them) instead of trying to tear them down.  It’s this unique mix of toughness on the problem and softness on the person that sets apart effective critical thinkers and jerks.

And that is a critical distinction.

Who has an example of someone who has mastered the art of constructive critical thinking?