Author Archives: Chris MacDonald

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.

How Does a Critical Thinker Behave?

Here’s a useful little piece on “What Actions or Behaviors Are Indicative of a Critical Thinker?”

Summarizing very briefly, the 4 key characteristics listed are:

  1. Clarifies Through Debate
  2. Asks Questions
  3. Gathers and Tests Information
  4. Reflects with Metacognition [i.e., thinking about thinking]

So, the test for the student of business: how specifically does each of these apply in the world of commerce?


Critical Thinking for Business Ethics

Critical thinking involves a set of skills that can be applied to literally any topic. This includes ethics, which many people wrongly take to be a matter of pure opinion or maybe feeling. Critical thinking actually plays a good role in clear ethical thinking. Ethics is hard sometimes, and it’s easy to fall prey to bad arguments. To see what I mean, take a look at this chapter I wrote for a business ethics textbook: Critical Thinking for Business Ethics

Here’s the introduction:

This chapter will explore the application of critical thinking skills to the study of business ethics. We will begin by asking what critical thinking is. Students will learn that critical think- ing is a systematic approach to evaluating and formulating good arguments in defence of specific beliefs or claims. Next, we will ask why critical thinking is essential to ethics. This involves illustrating how mistaken ethical beliefs can be rooted in either (a) faulty premises or (b) faulty logic. Faulty premises will be further subdivided into unacceptable factual foundations and unacceptable ethical principles.

We will then provide students with a handful of key critical thinking skills that they can apply to analyzing and resolving ethical challenges. First, students will learn about argument structure and the key components of arguments, namely premises and conclusions. Next, students will learn about the ingredients of good ethical arguments, and will be given tools for examining both the acceptability of premises and the relevance of particular premises to specific conclusions. Finally, the chapter will include a brief discussion of various well-known pitfalls in ethical reasoning, including logical fallacies (such as the argument from tradition, false dilemma, and the argument from popularity) as well as cognitive biases (such as the framing effect).

Gender and the Importance of Giving Reasons

Here’s an interesting bit of research that points to the value of the kind of critical thinking that focuses on the offering of reasons.

This is Victoria Brescoll, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale School of Management, commenting on her research on gender roles:

“We found that if people inferred that a woman had an intention to get power, or if she explicitly said that she was looking for a position of power, they were less likely to vote her into office. But people were more likely to vote for a man when he explicitly expressed or they inferred that he had that intention. 

We think that it’s entirely driven by expectations for how men and women are supposed to act. A strong desire for power on the part of women is very much violating a gender stereotype that women should be modest and play more of a backseat role.
When you actually ask people if women should be able to express anger at work, they say it is okay. If you ask people if they would vote for a woman who says she wants power, they’ll say yes, I wouldn’t discriminate. But when we randomly assign people to view one of the scenarios, they will show the bias against the people enacting counter-stereotypical behavior. 

The simplest way that women can express anger while avoiding this bias, at least according to my research, is to offer an explicit reason, so that somebody can’t blame their anger on who they are as a person. It’s not offering an excuse, but a context. This is a great thing for women to do.”

Of course, every critical thinker needs to be aware of the reasons behind his or her opinions, actions, or attitudes. But this suggests an interesting additional reason for emphasizing that.

On the Importance of Drawing (arguments)

Here’s a worthwhile rumination On the Importance of Drawing. Its point is that there are times when you can really only understand a thing well if you draw it. Unlike taking a picture, drawing something forces you to focus on its details.

This bears directly on a key still taught in many critical thinking courses, namely argument diagramming.

While the article linked is about the role of drawing in really seeing beauty, I think it applies well to critical thinking, too. Consider the challenge in really understanding the point of an argument, seeing its elements clearly, and the role drawing a diagram of it might play. And now read this paragraph:

So if drawing had value even when it was practised by people with no talent, it was… because drawing can teach us to see: to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly. In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts.

Critical Thinking and “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions.”

There’s a common saying among managers: “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions.” Whether it’s a good saying or not is questionable, and probably depends a lot on the situation. (For critiques of the saying, see here and here.)

Recently on the question-and-answer website Quara, someone asked “From the perspective of a CEO, what are the most underrated skills most employees lack?”. The most-voted-for answer, from LiveRamp CEO, Auren Hoffman, consisted of two bits of advice “Doing what you tell people you will do” and “Keep track of yourself.” Good advice.

But I was interested in another of the top answers, namely this one from Oliver Adria: “Think first. Go to the CEO with solutions, not with problems.”

Whatever qualms there might be with “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions” as something for managers to tell employees, it is still probably pretty good general advice to you as an employee. Even if your boss doesn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) insist on solutions only, it’s likely that you’ll do well not to make a habit of always going to her with your problems and expecting her to solve them.

But what really caught me eye about Adria’s response on Quara was that he differentiated between simply telling your boss what you think the solution is, and explaining to your boss what the best solution is and why it’s a good solution

Here, in Adria’s words, is what you say when you ‘Go to CEO with solutions:’

“I think Action A will be the best way to go about it, based on X, Y and Z. Action B would be a viable alternative, because then we could do L, M, N.”

In other words, tell your boss about the critical thinking that has gone into the solution you’ve arrived at. Show that there are clear reasons for thinking your solution is the best one, and admit that there are alternatives that might be viable too.

Of course, explaining to your boss what the critical thinking you’ve done requires that you do some in the first place.

Addendum: the two critiques I point to in the first paragraph, above, are worth looking at too. They’re good examples of critical thinking in action — taking aim at a seemingly-wise bit of management advice, and asking “really? is that really a good management slogan?”

Teaching Students Critical Thinking

From IFL Science: How To Teach All Students To Think Critically

…Most tertiary institutions have listed among their graduate attributes the ability to think critically. This seems a desirable outcome, but what exactly does it mean to think critically and how do you get students to do it?

The problem is that critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula – it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.

If you ask curriculum designers exactly how critical thinking skills are developed, the answers are often vague and unhelpful for those wanting to teach it.

This is partly because of a lack of clarity about the term itself and because there are some who believe that critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation, that it can only be developed in a discipline context – after all, you have think critically about something….

I feel this latter problem acutely. I teach critical thinking (and ethics) in a business school. But my textbook (The Power of Critical Thinking, 3rd Canadian Edition.) is a popular general critical thinking textbook, aimed at undergraduate university and college students quite generally.

Critical Thinking (and speaking) Off the Cuff

What’s the relationship between critical thinking and effective speaking? Author John Coleman recently posted this useful short piece on the HBR Blog: 5 Tips for Off-the-Cuff Speaking.

The first thing that struck me about it was that each of Coleman’s tips is related to a key aspect of critical thinking. Here are Coleman’s 5 tips, with my annotations:

1. Define a structure. Coleman worries about speeches that “ramble without purpose.” Those aren’t much fun to listen to. And, I would add, if your goal is to convince or to motivate, a poorly-structured (or unstructured) speech won’t do it. This is why students in my class learn to diagram arguments.
2. Put the punchline first. “Any presentation,” argues Coleman, “should have a clear thesis stated up front so that listeners can easily follow and interpret the comments that follow.” In other words, you should know what your conclusion is, and be plain about that.
3. Remember your audience. Coleman favours tailoring your speech to your audience because it will put them at ease, and make them feel at home. I would add that, if your purpose is to be persuasive, you need to put forward arguments rooted in premises that your audience is likely to accept. And how can you do that without knowing your audience?
4. Memorize what to say, not how to say it. This is another reminder that the key ideas and how they fit together is what really matters. Critical thinking is about abstracting the key ideas from the fluff around them.
5. Keep it short. A good, clear argument is typically brief. Think critically about all the other stuff you’re tempted to say. Is it making a contribution, or — more likely — just getting in the way?

How to Criticize with Kindness

Critiquing someone else’s point of view in a constructive way is an important skill, and a difficult one.

Check out this blog post summarizing philosopher Daniel Dennett’s short guide to :
How to Criticize with Kindness

Here’s the key bit from Dennett:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Thinking Critically About the Media

By Barry Ritholtz, for Bloomberg Views, demonstrates how to adopt a critical attitude when reading the business news:

How to Spot the Garbage in News

“…I can randomly pick up any newspaper article or analyst report, and find holes and flaws merely by asking questions the author left unanswered. Active reading often leads to the conclusion that the vast majority of news is at best incomplete and uninformative, while a majority of research reports are full of biases and logical errors.

That is a pretty bold statement, and to demonstrate this, I am going to take a random article and dissect it using logical skepticism…”

Deceptively Simple Web-Based Decision Aids

Critical thinking is often defined in terms of the set of skills and attitudes related to appropriate belief formation. But typically having the right beliefs is something pursued as part of an attempt to make good decisions. Ultimately, good decisions and appropriate belief formation are tightly related, and both are part of the study of critical thinking.

Here’s a website designed to help you make decisions: Something Pop. The site essentially helps you apply weightings to various factors that go into making a decision. Some will see this as a way of making sure the factors you value really get applied to a decision. Others will see it as a way of seeing the implications of the values you think you hold, with the possibility of revising them. Either way, it’s interesting.

Of course, you can also flip a coin. Of course, you generally don’t want to let random chance determine your actions. But, as an old saying goes, once the coin is in the air, you’ll suddenly find yourself acutely aware of what you’re wishing for. And if you don’t have a coin handy (after all, who carries change these days?) here’s a website to help you: Flip a Coin.