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The Power of Sound Thinking

Any company or industry that makes critical thinking a company-wide or industry-wide value acquires the ability to anticipate and effect constructive change, for only critical thinking can provide the impetus for continual re-thinking and evaluation of all present ideas, policies, and strategies. Without critical thinking built into the culture of an organization, short-range thinking is likely to predominate. Of course, short-range thinking may work for a time. For a time, it may be new. It may represent essential change. But if novel thinking is not eventually subject to critique, to adjustment, to refinement, to transformation, then, sooner or later, it becomes problematic and rigid.

One challenge we face in bringing critical thinking into any organizational structure is that, upon being questioned, most people think they already think critically and therefore that there is nothing significant for them to learn. If you ask all of those present in a room full of people: "Would all those who think uncritically please raise your hand?" you are likely to have no takers. There is a natural illusion fostered by the human mind that leads all of us to think that our own thinking is well-tuned to reality—even when it is not, in fact especially when it is not. Only as people begin to develop as thinkers do they commonly recognize that their own thinking is often flawed and in need of transformation.

The result is that any really new corporate leadership must break-through the mundane self-deception characteristic of human thinking itself. It must overcome what might be called "the natural attitude." Hence, corporate leadership based on critical thinking must not only define a purpose and communicate that purpose, but an intrinsic part of that purpose must be commitment to critical thinking on the job at all levels. It is not enough that an organization have and communicate a purpose, it must be a well-thought-through purpose. It is not enough to energize workers, there must be a mechanism in place that helps ensure that the energy is intelligently used and effectively applied. Achieving, for example, a balance between control and empowerment is something that must be carefully thought through, for only quality of thought and analysis will generate the right balance.

The same holds for the balance between policy and autonomy. The employees and the managers must exercise judgment regarding both. Poor judgment regarding either will not effect a release from paralysis. By the same token, "listening to employees and customers" should be listening to them critically. In short, the notion of dynamic change and growth presupposes that the change and the growth are the right change and the right growth, and those judgments require nothing less than critical thinking. Unfortunately, critical thinking cannot be presupposed. It must be systematically fostered. Once a balance is achieved between policy and autonomy, between control and empowerment, and critical thinking is systematically fostered, it releases the collective energy of all parties in an organization.

When rigid thinking becomes pronounced, and the individuals in an organization no longer feel part of a vital purpose, or connected to the company's activities as a whole, a negative atmosphere emerges. Employees become estranged from the company, though part of it. They may or may not verbalize that estrangement. They will perceive their superiors as irresponsive to them and to their needs. Policies will seem to lack sense or be connected to the facts of their workaday world. They may hide their perceptions, believing that their perceptions would be rejected or ridiculed. Their only connection with their work becomes their paycheck, and perhaps a few friends who share their views.

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