November 15, 2014

The Workplace Clash Between Problem Solvers and Critical Thinkers: a Battle Between Too Much and Too Little?

THINK AND DOA close read of some recent thinking about critical thinking reveals a lack of consensus about what it is, how and why it matters, and whether it, as some employers and academics characterize it, amounts to or includes problem solving as the or a core skill.

To that debate and discussion should be added the implicit question “When is there too much on-the-job and personal critical thinking or too little in connection with problem solving?”

Wanted: Unthinking Problem Solvers

An October 21, 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Melissa Korn— “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?”—reports that there is a perception that far from being synonymous or even compatible, critical thinking and problem solving may be antagonistic in an organizational context:

Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, which promotes educational reform, says employers really want well-trained problem solvers and not critical thinkers, especially in the lower ranks. Critical thinkers, she says, tend to challenge the status quo, which isn’t always what a boss is after.

There is one thing about critical thinking, however it is defined, upon which everyone will agree: It is that, in connection with problem solving and for the individual doing it, critical thinking generally takes more time than thinking that is not critical (unless the perfection of practice, i.e., mastery, makes skillful application of it a lightning-fast reflex that is even faster than superficial or clunky thinking–a talent professional critical thinkers not only aspire to, but enjoy being told they have).

It may take someone who is not thinking critically longer to solve a problem than someone else who is, but the same person, opting for one approach or the other, will, in general, take longer to think critically about a problem than if (s)he did not.

That’s a proposition that seems true under any standard or definition of critical thinking (even if the initial investment in critical thinking will ultimately save time, energy or money as its benefits kick in).

Postponing an attempt to frame or itemize the elements of critical thinking and, instead, focusing on what any definition of “critical thinking” must encompass, it is clear that it does include awareness of, sensitivity to and the ability and motivation to avoid and resolve contradictions. Accepting that much, it is easy to illustrate a common workplace conflict between problem solving and critical thinking—in this instance, with an example drawn from my own work experience.

My Critical Battle with the Bosses

A long time ago, I was hired as a programmer analyst trainee with a global insurance company, which was creating its own instructional texts, apparently not edited by an external reviewer. What happened was that a conflict between my critical thinking inclinations and standards collided with the company’s  text standards and concept of “problem solving”–mostly because we disagreed about what constituted a problem.

The situation was this: In the training manual, I found an important contradiction between information and concepts on one page and its counterpart on another, which, unresolved, made retention and application of that content impossible for me (as a professional logician of sorts—in virtue of my previous graduate training in and teaching of philosophy and critical thinking that makes attempting to work with contradictions unacceptable). To and for me, that was a “problem”.

However, management saw things differently—in particular, what counted as a problem. From their perspective, the only problem was that I was spending too much time on such logical details, instead of getting on with the job of finishing the manual and program as quickly as possible.

Basically, they valued immediate doing and  its ostensible “results” more than any clarity and consistency that might in the end improve those results, prevent confusion and inefficiency, clean up the training materials and overall and eventually make for better doing.

[See’s Matthew Kosinksi’s “In Praise of Thinkers (Not Doers)” for another defense of this latter kind of claim.]

“But…”-Heads Butting Heads

In philosophical terms, this head-butting with management escalated into a battle between my Cartesianism (“clear and distinct ideas”) and their (misconceived, in my opinion) bottom-line dollar-denominated pragmatism.

Thinking about my performance as critically as they were inclined or could afford to, management concluded I was thinking too much, not doing enough, without considering the long-term benefits of having coherent training materials (despite the fact that the contradictions obstructed application of the training by creating confusion about how to apply the concepts and which ones to apply to hands-on programming).

In the end, we soon—prematurely, actually–parted ways, because the company’s idea of “critical thinking” was to be critical of critical thinking and to limit the rest to what was judged by them to be critically important to “problem solving”, itself equated with minimizing the up-front time, thinking and money devoted to to any task, including problem solving.

(I later found out from an insider that they were way over budget in their training program and were eager to have fewer trainees in the group of about six.)

From a critical thinking standpoint, the problem with their approach was its short-sightedness, much like failing to see that dealing with a risky leak in a boat by rowing faster will fail once far enough or long enough out to sea.

Another metaphor for that kind of visual impairment is mistaking a leak in a boat for a scratch on it, upon peering at it. Predictably, they would probably reply that “one boat’s serious leak is another’s insignificant scratch”, and agree that neither of us would ever get on board the other’s boat.

But it’s not very satisfying to conclude that, when there is a conflict between critical thinking and problem solving, we may have to agree to disagree or invoke the Latin “de gustibus non disputandum est” (“There is no arguing about taste”) or Japanese “Ju nin, to iro” (“Ten people, ten colors”) maxim. I prefer to believe that with enough critical thinking, it should be possible to specify when

1. critical thinking and problem solving clash in general and in concrete situations
2. critical thinking should take a back seat to problem solving or vice versa.

In a previous article of mine, “‘You Think Too Much!’: When the Mind Messes with the Job” , I sketched the outlines of a complete answer to the second question. Here are some of the guidelines I recommend to help management and employees determine when there is “TMT” (“Too Much Thinking”)”:

  • Thinking that, in virtue of never ending, prevents completion of the job task
  • Thinking that, in virtue of being more than is actually required, prolongs completion of the task
  • Thinking that, in virtue of displacing more effective actions (as an opportunity cost), affects the efficiency or quality of the goal-directed efforts
  • Thinking that questions the job task and impedes its execution without suggesting an answer or practical alternative task that doesn’t itself involve more of the same kind or others kinds of TMT. (In the workplace, one example of this is called “shifting the goal posts”.)

Of course, even if results-oriented, cash-or-time-strapped management does not dispute the wisdom of these and other guidelines, it will always be happy to categorize as much thinking as possible as TMT in accordance with them and argue as vigorously as possible that one or more of these guidelines covers any given specific case of thinking at the expense of “problem solving” and immediate (as opposed to eventual) doing.

If that happens to you, there is one recourse, one counter to their arguments.

Thinking critically and clearly about the distinct possibility of having to look for another job.


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Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).