Ranking number two on the World Economic Forum's list of top skills required for the high-paying jobs of 2020 is critical thinking. And critical thinking is only beat by complex problem-solving, which is arguably a subset of critical thinking.
Yet in spite of their importance, critical thinking skills don't flourish in the halls of our top universities or offices of our top employers. About half of employers rate their employees' critical thinking skills as average or worse.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of standardized test scores given to freshmen and seniors at 200 colleges, the average graduate from some of the most prestigious universities shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.
How could this be?
Research published in the Journal of Technology Education in the mid-1990s revealed that students who participated in collaborative learning sessions did better on critical thinking tests than those who studied independently. One of the key reasons the students in the group settings performed better is they had to "go beyond mere statements of opinion by giving reasons for their judgments."
They had to defend their actions and their opinions, be willing to consider external opinions, and change their thinking as a result of those outside opinions.
This is the nature of a debate (i.e., healthy public discourse), which has lost its place in recent years to personally insulting exchanges on one hand and judgment-free brainstorming sessions on the other.
Critical thinking is developed in the refinery of others' thoughtful opinions, where people can intellectually wrestle with the facts without worrying about offending others. Without a culture of debate, we can't learn to think critically.
To create a healthy culture of debate in your team or company, apply these three research-backed practices:
1. Reward participation, not winning ideas.
Debating is risky. It involves disagreement and every disagreement has the potential to damage relationships. It also involves the risk that others will discredit you if you share an idea they think is sub-par.
To have a debate culture, you need to ensure people feel comfortable taking risks. It's no coincidence that Google found that psychological safety-- a "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking"-- is the greatest predictor of team success. When people feel safe, they participate intellectually unhindered in the process, which grows them and generates better ideas, plans, and products.
Yet, people will never feel safe if all incentives and praise are linked to coming up with the best idea. If you want great discourse, then you need to celebrate the discussion and credit the whole team for the winning idea. After all, in a culture of debate, the winning idea is the product of the whole team's participation.
2. Plan to disagree.
The goal of most leaders is to get their teams aligned as quickly as possible. Yet, in their rush to reach alignment, they snuff out the possibility of debate. Team members know when a topic is really open to discussion and when you're only looking for sign-off with a few tweaks.
Debating takes time because it assumes that disagreement is necessary before true agreement can be reached. You have to build this time into your plans if you want your teams to learn to think exceptionally.
On top of time, it's important to use language that gives permission to debate. For example, replace the meeting objective, "Align on priorities for Q1" with "Debate priorities for Q1."
3. Expect to be wrong half the time.
In addition to expediency, many leaders and managers forego the benefits of debating because they believe they are correct 95 percent of the time. As journalist Bret Stephens says in the New York Times article, "The Dying Art of Disagreement," "to disagree well you must first understand well... You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt... And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say."
If you don't believe there is a good chance that you could be wrong, at least in part, any attempt at debate is a fraud. It creates the appearance of meaningful interaction while making a mockery of others' participation. Team members soon figure out what is really going on and begin responding to everything with head nods.
With technology replacing more low-skill jobs, it is safe to assume that critical thinking skills will only grow in importance. It's time for more leaders and managers to buck the trends that have eroded a culture of debate in society and, instead, cultivate this critical value in their teams and companies.