Convincing Your Boss

One of the things I point out to my students frequently is that business is a collaborative activity, and collaboration requires that we agree on objectives and methods. That can mean convincing your team-mates, your subordinates, or even your boss of the best course of action. That means you need to understand the mechanics of using argumentation and how to use it effectively for persuasion. That, in turn, requires critical thinking.

With regard to bosses, see this useful piece from Harvard Business Review: Getting the Boss to Buy In

It focuses on the notion of “issue selling” — in particular, selling your boss on a new idea.

Issue sellers who accomplish their goals, we found, look for the best ways, venues, and times to voice their ideas and concerns—using rhetorical skill, political sensitivity, and interpersonal connections to move the right leaders to action….

The article isn’t cast in terms of critical thinking, but the connection is there. Students of critical thinking should read this article and ask which of Susan Ashford and James Detert’s bits of advice require the application of the core skills of critical thinking.

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.