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Building Critical Thinkers in Your Firm

In every firm, there are at least two levels of thinkers. There's the strategic level – the people who see the big picture and where the firm (and its clients) need to go – and the task manager level – the people who actually get the work done. Between those two ends of the spectrum is an important level: the insights people – those critical thinkers who ask questions, challenge the status quo, and ultimately improve any initiative.

These critical thinkers are essential to a successful future, but questioning and challenging don't always come naturally. So how do you build these types of thinkers in your firm?

How to build critical thinkers

Many firm leaders expect employees to be critical thinkers but don't express that expectation or know how to create an environment that fosters this behavior. The following steps can help you get there.

Encourage open communication

The most crucial step for creating a culture of critical thinkers is to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their doubts or critiques.

Creating an atmosphere of critical thinking means providing a safe space for employees to express their thoughts and make mistakes without fear of repercussions. When you create an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, thinking out loud and even being wrong sometimes, you give people the confidence to take risks to reach the best solutions.

Offer opportunities for open communication, such as brainstorming meetings or town halls. By actively encouraging employee input and setting the expectation that no idea is a bad one, you create an atmosphere where employees feel the can share openly and honestly.

Offer professional development opportunities

The ability to think critically often comes from experience, so it is a skill people can develop. Offering employees the chance to develop their skills helps them become better critical thinkers and stay up-to-date on the latest industry trends and technologies.

While technical skills are essential, think beyond CPE hours. Webinars, workshops, mentoring programs and seminars on "soft skills" can also be great options for developing critical thinkers. Some topics to consider incorporating into your training and learning program include:

  • Communication

  • Active listening

  • Goal setting

  • Time management

  • Delegation

  • Project management

  • Problem-solving

  • Collaboration

  • Conflict resolution

  • Decision making

Build diverse teams

According to a study published in the Journal of Economic Geography, companies with diverse management teams are more likely to introduce new product innovations than companies with homogeneous management teams. Another study published in the Journal of Organization & Management found that gender diversity is positively related to radical innovation.

Building diverse teams ensures that different perspectives are considered when tackling projects or initiatives. Diversity also allows everyone to learn from each other and develop new skill sets.

Encourage a growth mindset

A growth mindset is a belief that one's abilities aren't fixed—they can be developed through effort, resilience and hard work.

Fostering growth mindsets in your team members can help build their ability to think critically. By teaching people to embrace change and challenge themselves, you create an environment where ideas can be tested, and people can make mistakes and learn from them. Encourage your team to try new things and take risks to grow personally and professionally.

Assign stretch goals

Creating challenging projects or assignments can also help spark creativity and critical thinking.

Whenever possible, assign stretch goals to help people grow professionally and explore their potential. These assignments should be achievable but require people to think outside the box to solve problems or develop new ways of tackling tasks.

Avoid micromanagement

Micromanagement stifles creativity and takes away from an individual's and a team's potential. It's important to delegate authority and responsibility to let people get work done while providing guidance when needed. This gives them a chance to develop critical thinking skills and can lead to innovations in your technology and processes.

If you desire to have critical thinkers and insightful individuals on your team—and you should—it's up to you as a leader in the firm to set the expectation and help people develop that skill.

Some people will move beyond the insights level into strategic thinkers, and some may prefer to stay at the task-oriented level. That's good! A dynamic firm needs all three levels to thrive. But identify the current task managers who have the desire and potential to grow and strive to challenge them to think beyond the scope of their existing responsibilities. It takes time and effort, but doing so will improve the firm's overall functioning and help create an environment of independent thought and creative problem-solving.


Could you benefit from a peer network of other advisory service leaders?

The Boomer Business Transformation Circle is a peer group of advisory service leaders from top accounting firms who benefit from sharing knowledge, best practices and lessons learned. Apply now to get plugged into the Circle and start transforming your firm.


As Member Experience Strategist for Boomer Consulting, Inc., Erin plans, organizes, secures and manages resources for the firm’s many service and program areas, including providing assistance and constant communication with clients and sponsors and serving as an even liaison. Her primary duties include overseeing and managing the specifics of all Boomer Consulting, Inc. communities, such as the Boomer Technology Circles, CIO Circle, Managing Partner Circle, Business Transformation Circle and Operations Circle.


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