Two heads are supposed to be better than one. Logically, multiple heads should make much better decision-making than any one single individual can. Most of the time, it doesn’t play that out that way. For some reason, when people get together, it always feels like it impairs instead of enhances their collective critical thinking.
It isn’t because they’re all incompetent. Counterproductive thinking patterns affect everyone, regardless of rank or talent. Sometimes, greater numbers worsen the situation; the more heads there are in the team huddle, the less effective the team’s decision-making. For that reason, managers must identify and understand these patterns that impair their team’s effectiveness, and even their own. In that regard, here are five common critical-thinking killers.
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Ignorance isn’t in and of itself the worst crime in the world; someone who’s ignorant isn’t necessarily unwilling to learn. It’s when this ignorance comes with a closed-off mind that it becomes dangerous. People who are both ignorant and unwilling to learn are the hardest to teach, and the easiest to fall prey to irrational thinking. This is what’s called “compound ignorance”: when people are unaware of how much they don’t know.
It corresponds with the psychological phenomenon called the Dunning Kruger Effect. This holds that people who have less knowledge in a particular field are more likely to overestimate how much they actually know. According to this phenomenon, it’s most common among those who are just getting started in their respective fields.
Being overconfident of what you know in this sense is a recipe for disaster in the workplace; you’re less likely to consider all options equally in a given situation. Innovativeness also takes a hit. If you think you already know enough, you’ll probably content yourself with the status quo instead of continuously finding new ways to improve products and processes.
One of the most common problems plaguing teams is their susceptibility to groupthink. This holds that in the interests of preserving group consensus, people tend to converge prematurely on one collective decision above all else regardless of its actual practicality and utility. In other words, teams tend to agree with one another to avoid the risk of potential conflict from disagreements.
Not only does this kill team creativity and cognitive diversity, but it can also paradoxically make intra-team relations more strained in the long term. Because of the lack of alternative voices in group decision-making, team members who continuously silence their dissent might end up bottling up their frustrations. The eventual outburst would be much more potentially harmful to group dynamics than the initial temporary discomfort that comes with airing grievances and contrary opinions.
People see what they want to see. This is essentially what the confirmation bias is; we tend to absorb and process information that proves our initial hypotheses right.
If, for example, you’ve ever tried to choose between two options, one which you already favour more than the other for whatever reason, you’ll probably realise that you tend to conclude that your preferred option is the best course of action. It’s much easier, after all, to stick with your current opinions than to change them.
In teams, confirmation bias can severely impair the effectiveness of team brainstorming in the process of innovation. So often, people don’t properly consider the viability of all the prospective solutions that they’ve brainstormed. Instead, they tend to think in ways that justify their preferred solution, regardless of objectivity.
There’s an old saying that holds that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This isn’t true; research has shown that it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks. It just takes longer.
That’s because of “functional fixedness,” which describes the fact that people tend only to use a given object in the ways it’s traditionally used. In other words, their established modes of thinking stand in the way of coming up with different uses of the object beyond those they’re already familiar with.
Functional fixedness explains why organisations that have been around longer tend to be so mired in their old ways and find it so hard to adapt to the market. Dan Pink, in his viral TED talk on “The Puzzle of Motivation”, pointed out that this is why companies often to stick to financial compensation as an incentive for innovation, despite research showing that it’s largely effective.