Unlocking the Superpower of Critical Thinking A Conversation with John Chetro Szivos 2

Unlocking the Superpower of Critical Thinking: A Conversation with John Chetro Szivos

In an era where the pace of change is relentless, and the nature of challenges is increasingly complex, mastering the art of critical thinking has never been more crucial. It is with this understanding that we delve into the insights of John Chetro Szivos, author of “On Becoming a Critical Thinker: Awakening Your Business Superpower.” Szivos, with his rich background as an organizational consultant, CEO, professor, and life coach, brings a unique perspective on how critical thinking can transform individuals and organizations alike. Today, we explore the depths of critical thinking with Szivos, unraveling its essence, challenges, and the profound impact it can have on personal growth and business success.

  • What inspired you to write ‘On Becoming a Critical Thinker’, and how do you believe critical thinking serves as a ‘superpower’ in the business world?

Two things come to mind when you ask this question. First, during my years in higher education, I witnessed many universities set critical thinking as an outcome for their students. Also, look at the syllabi; you will likely find the term critical thinking scattered across the document. However, critical thinking needs to be better defined. There needs to be more discussion about what critical thinking means, and students seldom are involved in exploring what constitutes critical thinking. Students graduate and fill various jobs, but only some know how to think critically. Just because the curriculum mentioned the term, the objective still needs to be met. As a result, many students do not evolve into critical thinkers, and they soon find this out when they are faced with challenges in their professional or personal lives. 

The second thing that drew me to critical thinking was Ronald Heifetz’s work, which distinguished between technical and adaptive problems. A technical problem is one where we know the solution. For example, we construct a budget or decide what computer to buy. On the other hand, many problems we encounter in the work world fall into the adaptive category. The solution is unknown and requires critical thinking and collaboration with colleagues. Examples include a conflict with a co-worker or a business expansion involving risk. When we know how to think critically, we can move forward to address an adaptive problem. Forming a plan based on critical thinking becomes a “superpower” that helps us take on the many challenges we face in the business world with confidence and a higher degree of success.

  • Your book begins with a focus on transformation and learning. Can you share a personal or professional experience that highlighted the transformative power of critical thinking for you?

Whenever I mastered the challenges of a degree or a job, I began to think differently. The time dedicated to learning shifted my perspective and transformed how I experienced the world, the problems I faced, and the goals I hoped to achieve. A few years ago, I was a guest at a Chinese university and asked to deliver lectures to the faculty. Some beautiful Chinese characters caught my attention over the door where I would lecture. I asked the translator what the characters meant, and he said, “The hall of mental cultivation.” That term resonated with me because of my interest in interpersonal neurobiology. Learning is about transformation, and it changes our neurology. When we learn something new, neural pathways are formed. Thinking critically will change how we approach problems, make decisions, and see the challenges ahead. That is mental cultivation, or what I am more comfortable referring to as transformation. 

I recall an employee who had amassed several years of doing good work and earned the respect of his co-workers. Suddenly, his performance began to slip, and he made a few significant mistakes, at least one bordered on termination. I had just started practicing critical thinking about a year before that, and I recognized this was a time to use what I had been learning. He had been a valuable employee for a considerable time, and termination was an extreme solution. So, instead, I talked to him at length to explore what was going on that impacted his work. He reported some personal issues and a sense of burnout. Listening to his perspective, I began to understand the situation’s dynamics. I also researched some new findings on job burnout. We worked collaboratively to explore what it would take to get him back on track. It was clear he needed more challenges and to develop a new outlook. I sent him off to two or three conferences and asked him to identify what he had learned and what he could use in his work. He came back with new ideas and creative ways to get the job done. I encouraged him to implement these ideas, which he did with success. We also set other personal objectives for him to work toward in the next ninety days. He met all of these and was back on track. From that point on, our professional relationship grew. In many ways, he became a more valuable employee than he was in the past. Most importantly, he was re-energized and enjoying his work again.  

  • You discuss the importance of overcoming ‘the Kluge’ in our brains. Can you share some strategies or practices that have helped you or others you’ve coached to overcome these inherent cognitive limitations?

Kluge refers to the idea that the human brain is a product of evolution resulting in a collection of adaptations and workarounds rather than a perfectly designed system. Understanding our brain’s inherent limitations and biases is crucial for developing effective critical thinking skills.

A simple way to overcome these limitations is by sharpening our awareness and imagining the consequences. While it may feel good to express our anger, the result is seldom ideal. When I am presented with a challenge that angers me or upsets me, I silently say use your new brain. The new brain, or the neo-cortex, is where we can challenge our interpretations and assumptions and imagine the consequences. The neocortex is where reasoning happens, and in the new brain, we can select a better way to handle the challenge. Also, mindfulness can be beneficial. Practicing mindfulness meditation regularly will keep us focused on responding to situations with thoughtfulness and not the simple fight, flight, or freeze that resides in our primitive brain. Mindfulness meditation is not for everyone and is not the only way to access the new brain. Different people may find other ways to access the power of reasoning.

  • Your book touches on the distinction between technical and adaptive problems. Can you give an example of a business challenge you faced that required adaptive problem-solving and how critical thinking played a role in addressing it?

While working on an MBA, I also served as the Chief of a behavioral healthcare organization. The textbooks clearly explained the problems, and applying the concepts in the chapters was simple. However, it was hardly ever simple when I went to work, and the solutions did not work as neatly. I began to read more about adaptive leadership and realized I needed to develop solutions or at least adapt the solutions that worked in the textbooks. 

I recall that people were waiting at least a month or more to access outpatient services at the outpatient centers. Many people would find another way to address their issues or give up and leave their problems untreated. Survey data showed that many people were dissatisfied with the long waiting periods. This was not good care, resulting in a loss of clientele and revenue. Completing research, I found this was a problem due to lengthy outpatient services. Services could last for several months, and some extended into years. I began to research the efficacy of short-term treatment.

In many cases, short-term treatment was a different way of working with high success rates. Working with the clinical staff, we explored this and adopted a short-term model lasting six to eight weeks, which allowed people to re-enter if needed quickly. Clinicians had more time to dedicate to clients, allowing us to offer access to new admissions within 48 hours. Analyzing the problem, researching possible solutions, and adapting treatment with the clinical staff’s involvement resulted in a successful program. Satisfaction and revenues increased substantially. Finding a way to adjust to the consumers’ needs and improving access to care was a win-win situation. This was evident in improved client satisfaction and a healthier financial statement.

  • You advocate for seeking out diverse perspectives in fostering critical thinking. How has embracing multiple viewpoints impacted your approach to business strategy and leadership?

I am a firm believer in the concept of equifinality in decision-making. Equifinality shows us there is more than one way to reach an outcome. What may come to mind initially may offer a solution, but thinking critically would allow us to explore the many other ways to achieve the result. Diverse perspectives and multiple viewpoints can come from our research or examination of a challenge. It can also come from our colleagues, co-workers, and mentors. It is myopic to think we hold all the answers when numerous resources surround us. Involving others in developing strategy or leadership is not an abdication of your role but a move toward collaboration and efficiency. We live in a time where we have more access to information than at any other time. The resources are there in the literature and our professional associations, and we must tap into these to make better decisions. 

  • Could you highlight one or two tools or models from your ‘critical thinker toolbox’ that you find particularly effective in navigating complex business decisions?

The tools differ, and the most effective depends on the situation. This is not any different than using a hammer to pound a nail or a wrench to tighten a bolt. The hammer cannot tighten a bolt, and the wrench is not a good choice for pounding a nail. What I do enjoy is using brainstorming tools. Taking time to reflect and play with ideas can be enlightening and creative. I begin with a clean sheet of paper and a pencil and list or draw out ideas. I suspend my inner critic that tells me that it won’t work. Suspending judgment at this point can be liberating. My second step is to set my criteria of what I want to accomplish, the costs of time or money, and the steps and resources needed to reach my goal. I usually put time between this exercise and come back to review what I have generated. Then, I will employ the tools that fit the situation, such as an impact or specific financial analysis. When I complete these analyses, I establish specific goals and an action plan outlining the steps I need to take. However, adjusting the action plan as you move along is vital. Our first impressions are unlikely to capture the complexities we encounter in moving toward a goal. 

  • Considering your experience as a professor and organizational consultant, what advice would you give business educators on integrating critical thinking skills into their curriculum?

Practicality is the key. Presenting critical thinking from a theoretical point of view is usually not helpful. Open discussion about critical thinking, such as defining it, providing examples, and practicing thinking through an issue, is important. There are four steps I stress when giving a workshop or teaching about critical thinking they are: 

  • Examine the small things you do, such as emails, setting your priorities for the day, thinking about your day when it is completed, and reflect on how effective you were
  • Understand what your assumptions are and examine where they come from, whether they help you, and challenge if these are the best beliefs to help you live the life you want
  • Ask yourself helpful questions like, Am I being clear? How did I reach this conclusion? Are there other conclusions I can imagine? What criteria did I use, or is this as important as it seems?
  • Be efficient, and do not over-think what you should do. Thinking in this way can paralyze you from taking action. Once you establish criteria by knowing your assumptions and goals, thinking will be much more efficient. 

More than these steps, it helps students if we demonstrate how to think about an issue. I methodically go through the steps I would take to solve a problem or address an issue. When they see it in action, they can make sense of what critical thinking is about and how someone applies it. Recognizing critical thinking is vital to becoming a critical thinker. 

  • You propose a holistic definition of critical thinking that extends beyond traditional views. How do you see this evolving concept influencing the future landscape of business leadership and innovation?

A holistic definition values developing critical thinking, not just skills. It emphasizes the importance of creativity, curiosity, humor, confusion, emotional intelligence, communication, systems thinking, and cognitive abilities. A holistic perspective would value diversity and integrated insights from diverse disciplines. The interplay of diverse perspectives and the synthesis of multi-faceted insights pave the way for innovative solutions that resonate profoundly. A holistic approach to critical thinking acknowledges the need to develop an ability to process information. Still, it extends beyond this to emphasize a deep understanding of the knowledge and skills you learn, with the end being their continual use as they have become internalized. As you can see, holism is about incorporating more than analysis and planning. It is informed by different disciplines and approaches, such as systemic thinking, consilience, and emotions that make up human experience.

In time, we may see leadership and innovation as more than simple concepts; they may be more inclusive of the complexity of human interaction. I chuckle when I think the many models I learned in business school were captured in a 2×2 matrix or relied on tightly defined categorical thinking. Life is messy, and leading people and finding innovations can seldom be explained by these matrices or categories. We must look to other places to discover new ways of leading and innovating organizations.  

Critical thinkers will possess skills in analysis, evaluation, and planning, but they also need an attitude of curiosity prompted by observations they make, experiences, reasoning, and communication with others that guides them to take action. 

  • Your book underscores the personal transformation that accompanies the development of critical thinking skills. Can you share how this journey has transformed your personal and professional life?

Becoming a critical thinker requires dedication and practice approaching the many episodes that make up our day. When I worked on critical thinking, I saw my interpretation of events becoming more multi-faceted. I didn’t rely on simple explanations and became increasingly aware of my biases or beliefs, which led me to interpret ideas, events, and interactions in non-productive ways. It is not easy, and there are times when I have been more successful than others. However, the moments of success have shown me the benefits of critical thinking and catalyzed applying critical thinking to more of my experiences. It is not hyperbole to say critical thinking is a transformation capable of affecting our personal and professional lives. You will see benefits in a marriage, a friendship, professional work, or personal goals. I don’t doubt you will see the world differently and act more productively when you are thinking critically. 

  • What do you see as the next frontier for critical thinking in business, and what challenges or opportunities do you anticipate will emerge in this area?

This is a difficult question to answer because students and employees need more opportunities to learn about critical thinking and its application. However, there is a growing awareness among some leaders of what they are referring to as soft skills. Recently, I interviewed leaders of several major companies in a metropolitan area in the northeast. I was building a curriculum for my leading graduate programs, and I wanted to ensure our students were well-prepared for the workforce. When I asked what courses they thought would best prepare their employees, most identified topics such as effective communication with co-workers and consumers, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, decision-making, employee citizenship behavior, and other soft skills. These topics do not fall under technical skills such as software programs, data analysis, or programming. Technical skills will remain valuable, but technical demands will always change with the introduction of new technologies. Understanding the value of soft skills is a positive sign, but I wonder if the leaders see the relationship between soft skills and critical thinking. Based on these competencies, an employee would need to think critically, see multiple perspectives, and imagine the potential consequences of actions. To become a critical thinker, employees should examine their values and beliefs, be aware of their cognitive biases, and build time for personal development. Critical thinking is the bedrock of mastering abilities such as communication, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and more. 

There is a growing awareness among leaders that an organization’s success is linked to its employees’ developmental growth. Many companies realize the correlation between employee growth and organizational success. Some embrace this challenge by implementing programs to weave employee development goals into the daily fabric of the workplace. This is a start, but employee development requires time and money that some companies avoid or believe they cannot afford this. 

Another sign of positive movement is many companies’ use of life coaches. The goal is generally to assist employees in addressing career challenges and ultimately improve performance. I hope companies will realize an employee who is a critical thinker is a valuable asset, and investment in employee development will yield a better-equipped professional. 

Our journey through the realms of critical thinking with John Chetro Szivos reveals not just the significance of this skill in the business world, but also its transformative power on a personal level. Szivos’s insights serve as a beacon for aspiring leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone eager to unlock their full potential in an ever-evolving landscape. As we conclude this enlightening conversation, it’s clear that critical thinking is indeed a superpower—one that can navigate us through the complexities of modern business and beyond. Embracing the principles outlined by Szivos can lead us to not only professional success but also to a richer, more reflective way of living.