How to assess critical thinking for leadership positions

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Picture this. You’re in a management meeting where no one dares disturb the “business as usual” atmosphere. Problems need fixing, but no one will touch them. Meanwhile, business growth is slow and employees are dissatisfied with the decision-making. 

Often, the culprit in this scenario is the absence of critical thinking in leadership.

Critical thinking helps leaders challenge assumptions and make logic-driven decisions. So, assessing this skill when hiring for leadership positions is crucial. But how do you know when someone’s thinking critically?

Worry not! Our guide will cover what critical thinking involves, how to select your top candidates using critical thinking assessments and interviews, and what pitfalls to avoid.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a skill set that enables someone to question assumptions and evaluate alternatives while considering available resources and desired outcomes. Its sub-skills include using analytical reasoning, being curious, managing uncertainty, and identifying costs and benefits. 

Why do leaders need critical thinking?

Business leaders need critical thinking to make better decisions, solve problems quickly and robustly, and foster innovation in their organizations. Plus, thinking critically helps limit:

  • Groupthink: Tending to agree with – rather than challenge – group opinions

  • Confirmation bias: Using new information to confirm one’s existing opinions rather than to gain a balanced understanding of the situation

Every leadership position requires critical thinking. For instance, CEOs need it to decide between growth strategies, while technology officers use it to enhance a platform’s user experience. Plus, leaders who think critically can better motivate and engage their teams because they’re good at challenging their own assumptions and handling uncertainty.

What you need to know before hiring a leader with critical thinking skills

Keep these two considerations in mind as you prepare to hire a leader.

Pinpoint the team’s current challenges

First, identify your organization’s top challenges and how your new hire should address them. This will help you tailor your assessment process to see how well candidates can apply critical thinking to the role. Skipping this step could lead you to hire a candidate who has generic critical thinking skills that don’t translate well to specialized challenges.

Say, for instance, you’re hiring a chief operations officer who needs to choose and implement a new project management software solution. You’ll want to see whether candidates can use critical thinking skills in combination with hard skills like software knowledge and purchasing decisions. 

Consider your company culture

Before selecting a leader, determine whether they would enhance your company culture. How well do their behaviors and values align with your company’s? 

A leader's critical thinking style should resonate with your organization's values, work ethics, and the way team members communicate and collaborate. This is crucial for fostering a harmonious work environment and for ensuring the leader’s strategies and decisions align with your organization’s vision. 

For example, if your company values innovation and rapid decision-making, a leader who excels in fast-paced, creative problem-solving would be ideal. Conversely, a more deliberative and data-driven leader might be better suited for an organization that emphasizes detailed analysis and risk management.

How to select the best leadership candidates with critical thinking skills 

You can’t assess critical thinking skills by looking at resumes. Anyone can claim to have critical thinking skills.  

Interviews and talent assessments are the best ways to select leaders with critical thinking skills.

Use different interview question types

Scenario-based interview questions help you put critical thinking skills into context by asking candidates to solve hypothetical real-world problems. However, you can also assess critical thinking through behavioral questions (which ask about past work situations), and competency-based questions (which focus on specific skills and knowledge). 

Here are examples of critical thinking interview questions and what to look for in responses.

  • Competency interview question: “Tell us about a time when you managed a project for a complex initiative.” The candidate should describe a role-specific process by mentioning what they assumed and concluded, as well as which alternatives they considered. 

  • Behavioral interview question: “Describe a time when you effectively resolved a group conflict at work.” A great answer includes an analysis of the problem’s causes and effects, as well as an estimation of the impact of alternative solutions.

  • Scenario-based interview question: “Imagine you’re leading our technology department. How would you influence other departments to have a more data-driven approach in their operations?” Candidates should make informed assumptions, ask for relevant additional context, and discuss solutions using cause-and-effect relationships. 

Create strong talent assessments

Using critical thinking tests for leadership roles is important because these tests help identify who’s most likely to base important business decisions on sound reasoning. 

Talent assessment platforms like TestGorilla help you make unbiased hiring decisions by offering various robust tests and ranking your applicants by their results. 

For example, TestGorilla’s Critical Thinking test is expert-crafted and peer-reviewed, containing various logic problems that quiz executives of any background. It takes only 10 minutes and is available in multiple languages.

For a well-rounded leadership assessment, combine our Critical Thinking test with up to five other tests from our test library, including:

  • Role-specific tests (e.g., branding strategy, financial management, retail sales)

  • Situational judgment tests (e.g., business judgment, leadership and people management)

  • Personality and culture tests (e.g., 16 personalities, culture add)

  • Cognitive ability tests (e.g., problem-solving, numerical reasoning)

How to assess critical thinking for leadership roles: 4 winning strategies

As a soft skill, critical thinking is often tricky to assess. You might be tempted to simply follow your gut instinct, but subjective assessments can lead to bias – and costly mis-hires.

Take the safer route and use these four top strategies to assess critical thinking skills in leadership roles.

1. Leave intentional information gaps

When asking candidates scenario-based interview questions, leave intentional information gaps. This enables candidates to:

  1. Ask pertinent follow-up questions

  2. Develop or question assumptions

  3. Be their own devil’s advocate

Here’s what this could look like in an interview. 

Imagine you’re asking a senior marketing candidate to explain how they’d research and analyze a new customer market for a product launch – without any additional information. The candidate should:

  • Ask relevant questions like “What’s the product?”, “Who’s the target customer?”, and “What’s our budget?”

  • Make informed assumptions as they describe their research and analysis process. For example, they could assume they’re leading a team of five people and the launch is in six months.

  • Question their own assumptions where relevant. For instance, they might say, “Our research may show the target customer’s needs are different. In that case, my next action would be…”

2. Add twists to a given situation

Whether you’re asking scenario-based or behavioral interview questions, you can add twists to see if candidates can adjust their analysis based on new information, including:

  • Judging which part of the data is useful to the analysis

  • Determining the causes and effects of the situation

  • Knowing when they have enough information to make a logical deduction

For example, say you’re quizzing a leadership candidate on building a successful sales team. Initially, you ask them to develop a strategy for achieving a set revenue target. After they provide their initial response, you “twist” the scenario by making the team’s revenue target twice as high.

Given this twist, the candidate must determine if and how this affects different components of team building they’ve already discussed – including staff numbers, compensation, and motivation. 

3. Look out for indicators of critical thinking 

Certain words or phrases suggest that leadership candidates think critically about problems. Keep your ears peeled for language related to making or challenging assumptions, identifying cause and effect, and supporting ideas based on evidence and reasoning.

For instance, these might include:

  • “Let’s assume that…”

  • “[An action] is likely to lead to…”

  • We thought [an assumption]. However, the data suggested [evidence].” 

  • In the past, our company did [an action]. I suggested [a new idea] because…”

4. Prioritize comfort with uncertainty

Leaders must make decisions while navigating uncertainty. They understand they can’t predict an outcome, so they use critical thinking to increase success chances instead. 

To test comfort with uncertainty in interviews and assessments, check if candidates correctly identify factors that affect an outcome, estimate the impacts of taking different actions, approach new information with curiosity, and stay adaptable to unexpected results.

For example, ask:

  • A behavioral question like “Tell me about a time when you successfully handled an uncertain situation.”  

  • A scenario-based question like “Imagine you executed a new sales strategy and the revenues are lower than expected. How would you investigate the cause and improve the strategy?”

Common mistakes when assessing critical thinking for leaders

Here are two main traps to avoid during the assessment process.

Confusing critical thinking with problem-solving

Problem-solving and critical thinking can work wonders together, but they’re distinct. By confusing them in your assessment process, you risk hiring a leader who exhibits solid problem-solving skills but lacks curiosity or the ability to question the current way of doing things. 

Here’s how to spot the difference between problem-solving and critical thinking.      

  • Problem-solving involves breaking down a problem into parts, finding its root cause, and prioritizing solutions that solve it effectively. People often consider it a critical thinking skill since it involves the application of critical thinking.

  • Critical thinking is a broader skill set that includes questioning assumptions, information validity, causes, and effects. It helps strengthen problem-solving, team management, decision-making, and other areas.

While problem-solving relies on asking “why?” and “how?”, critical thinking asks “what if?” Here are some examples: “What if [X] isn’t the root cause?” and “What if we try [Y] instead of [Z]?”

So, when assessing leadership candidates, evaluate critical thinking and problem solving as distinct skills. For example, you can use both the problem-solving and the critical thinking tests in a TestGorilla leadership assessment.

Assessing results rather than process

Critical thinking informs a candidate’s problem-solving and decision-making processes. They use it to find the next best move, compare alternative options, or redesign ineffective systems. While the ultimate results of their labors matter, too (whether in previous roles or theoretical scenarios), you should assess these outcomes separately.

For example, say you’re using interview scorecards to score candidate skills from 1-10 in a scenario-based interview question. Candidates who show excellent critical thinking get a full score of 10. If a candidate shows excellent critical thinking but doesn’t reach the ideal conclusion in the scenario, you might award them nine points for critical thinking and six for outcome – an average of 7.5. 

However, by ignoring the critical thinking process and prioritizing the outcome, you might give them an overall six. Meanwhile, another candidate who rushes to your preferred conclusion without rigorous critical thinking gets a higher score and a job offer. In this scenario, you risk reducing independent thought in your team and limiting business growth.

Identify critical thinking in leadership with TestGorilla

Having critical thinking in your leadership team leads to better decision-making while avoiding groupthink and confirmation bias. So, when hiring for management roles, pay attention to each candidate’s ability to question assumptions, stay curious, and be comfortable with uncertainty.

TestGorilla makes assessing leaders’ critical thinking super easy. Use our library of hundreds of tests to create talent assessments of up to five tests. Our expert-designed critical thinking test is customizable, so you can adapt it to your leadership role. Plus, you can combine it with our Problem Solving test, personality tests, and more for a well-rounded assessment. 

Find out more by booking a free live demo or joining TestGorilla free today.

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