Membership in human groups is a blessing and a curse. The pressure to conform to the dominant thinking in a group is an inescapable problem. It is hard to improve one's thinking when forced to work with others who routinely assume that their unsound thinking is sound. What is more, we should never forget that within corporate and other organizational structures the full range of human emotions, motivations, and interests play themselves out. The flaws of the group and the flaws of the individuals in the group interact in a multitude of ways. In all of this, there is commonly a struggle for power taking place. Both group self-deception and the negative personal characteristics of the individuals (in the group) have an impact on corporate and organizational life.
To think effectively in corporate and organizational settings, we must understand, therefore, not only the general logic of these structures, but also the specific logic of the particular organizations in which we are living and working. In the privacy of our minds we must learn to ask the right questions. We must focus on essential facts. We must decide on our personal priorities. We must take the long view. We must be realistic and practical. We must be comfortable with probabilities, and we must be willing to test our ideas and change them in the light of our critically analyzed experience.
If we can successfully persuade organizational leadership to work toward a culture of critical thinking, both we and the organization can benefit in a lifelong way. Here are some important conditions for success:
- The leadership must consist in essentially rational persons with an abiding recognition that they, and everyone else in the organization, are capable of thinking and performing at a higher level than they are at present.
- The leadership must be intellectually humble, and hence, recognize mistakes they have made in the past, the limitations of their own present knowledge, and have a desire to grow and develop as thinkers.
- The leadership must take a long-term view of building a culture of critical thinking within the organization. Short-term thinking must be used only as a stopgap measure and should not be typical of the thinking of the organization.
- The leadership must be willing to release those persons who will actively resist making critical thinking an essential element in the organization's mission.
- All key personnel must, over an extended period of time, become proficient in analyzing and evaluating thinking.
- All key personnel must strive to be explicit as to the thinking (especially the assumptions) they are using in making key decisions. They must also be willing to fair-mindedly consider the pro's and con's of alternative possible decisions.
- All key personnel must actively invite alternative points of view and strive to incorporate the strengths and insights of those views.
- The language of critical thinking must be actively adopted as the language in which policies and decisions will be discussed.
- Critical thinking will be used in the conduct of meetings on all issues. (What is our purpose? What is the key question here? What data do we need to make this decision? Is there another way to interpret these data? What are we taking for granted here? Do we need to question that? What other points of view do we need to consider?).
- All key personnel and departments will operate with the assumption that whatever we do, and however high our present level of performance, we can perform at a higher level (tomorrow, next week, by mid year).
- All policies, rules, regulations, and procedures are open to being questioned and replaced by a better policy, rule, regulation, or procedure. No policy, rule, regulation, or procedure will be maintained simply because it is traditional. All will be kept to a minimum. All must effectively serve a clear-cut purpose.
- All attempts to build domains of power within the organization that do not clearly support the mission of the organization will be resisted.
- All communications within the organization will be models of clarity, accuracy, brevity, and relevance.
- All employees will maintain a portfolio of self-assessment, in which personal strengths and weaknesses are documented, as well as strategies adopted to improve one's performance and effectiveness.
- In hiring personnel, an emphasis should be placed on candidates who are open-minded, willing to consider constructive criticism, and having a low level of ego-involvement in their work and relationships. During the probation period, special steps should be taken to verify these qualities.
Obviously, excellent planning and well-designed staff development in critical thinking could play a significant part in making these policies a practical reality. It is doubtful that significant changes in the thinking of an organization can take place without excellent planning, long-term commitment, and expertise in such a shift. As Stephen Covey (1992) puts it:
I have long advocated a natural, gradual, day-by-day, step-by-step, sequential approach to personal development. My feeling is that any product or program—whether it deals with losing weight or mastering skills—that promises "quick, free, instant, and easy" results is probably not based on correct principles. (p. 29)
Peter Senge (1990) puts it this way:
Recognizing that most new ideas in American management get caught up in the dynamics of the fad cycle leads to some sobering questions. What if the time required to understand, apply, and eventually assimilate the new capabilties suggested by a "new idea" is longer than the fad cycle itself? If organizations have an "attention span" of only one or two years (some might say one or two months), is it impossible to learn things that might require five or ten years? (p. x)
In any case, whether an organization is or is not open to significant change, our first responsibility must be to the integrity of our own lives as persons and thinkers. We serve others best by being true to ourselves. We must play the most positive role we can play in any organization of which we are a part, but when rigidity sets in, the most positive role we can play may be to leave and go our separate way.