The Value Of Critical Thinking At Board Level in Building Identified Digital Communities
We analysed the websites of 300 of the top African companies by market share and found the following statistics:
Do these apparent communication gaps come to pass due to a need for more innovative, critical thinking?
Boards must be willing to challenge the status quo to grow their influence and presence online. This means questioning why things are done a certain way and seeing if there might be a better way to establish legacy communications and investor relations structures.
Challenging the status quo is essential for innovation, and critical thinking allows board members to identify problems, potential solutions, and new growth opportunities.
Critical thinking is a crucial skill for board directors, particularly regarding sustainability. But does that mean a director is expected to be constantly pessimistic, cynical, and hyper-critical?
Not at all.
Critical thinking isn’t criticising. It’s about how directors approach problems, issues, and arguments. It’s about asking questions like ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’. It’s about objectivity, an open mind, and relying on evidence.
And when directors’ understanding is more profound, their contribution to the board’s decision-making can be much more valuable.
“Critical thinking is sceptical without being cynical. It is open-minded without being wishy-washy. It is analytical without being nitpicky.” – Peter Facione
Are There Critical Thinkers On Your Board? Are You One of Them?
If you’re not sure, consider this list.
- Do you access and then assess relevant sustainability information?
- Do you connect the dots between seemingly unrelated sustainability information?
- Do you raise meaningful questions?
- Do you articulate new ideas with clarity and precision?
- Are you aware of your own biases and take steps to neutralise them where they relate to sustainability?
- Do you recognise and challenge assumptions?
- Do you engage with others to find solutions?
- Do you communicate well-reasoned and practical conclusions?
- Do you continue to test conclusions against new information?
How to Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills
You’re not alone if you’re unhappy with your current skills or are not applying them consistently. Sustainability frameworks are diverse, complex and costly to implement One reason we need to improve our critical thinking consciously is simply how our brains work – we’re all prone to mental shortcuts and flawed reasoning sometimes.
The good news is that your critical thinking can be strengthened through self-discipline and practice. We all have many opportunities to practice these behaviours in our personal lives. Doing so will make bringing a critical-thinking mindset to our boardrooms easier.
To get started, you must make it a habit to:-
1. Vet Information – Use scepticism when reviewing information from news stories, articles, and social media.
- Look at where the facts, figures, images, and quotes came from. Are they trustworthy?
- Ask questions like ‘Is this information complete?’, ‘What evidence supports this argument?’, and ‘Whose voice is missing?’
- Ask about the motivation. Is it trying to sell you something or get you to do something?
- Ask yourself, ‘Is there more to this topic?’ Do your research to see the complete picture.
- Check the publication date. Events may have moved on since then.
- Look at the language, emotion, and tone. Is it deliberately trying to make you feel a certain way?
2. Ask Questions – Channel your inner child and ask lots of ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘why’ questions.
- Leave your questions open-ended to encourage critical thinking and allow people to expand their viewpoints.
- Ask follow-up questions. Questions that enable critical thinking are often delivered in chains of deeper and deeper inquiry.
- Consider the counterintuitive. Pose a question that challenges conventional thinking.
3. Listen Actively – Deep listening opens us to a wide array of potential solutions.
- Practice active listening – understanding what others say while showing them you are engaged and interested.
- Listen more than you talk. Active listening lets you grasp an argument, making evaluating it more effortless.
- Listen carefully to others to build a clear picture of their perspective.
- Listen without judgment. Critical thinking requires keeping an open mind.
4. Seek Diversity – The more we listen only to the people who share our views, the more polarised our ideas become.
- Consider more than one point of view.
- When presented with information, consider whether the story has other sides.
- Get outside your bubble to escape your usual thinking and gain insights.
- Give people a chance to voice their opinions independently.
5. Let it Soak – A thoughtful conclusion or question needs time.
- Get a good night’s rest. Sleep helps your brain assimilate a problem and see it more clearly.
- Map a process that allows you to solve a problem over several days.
- Resist unnecessary urgency.
6 Ways To Apply a Critical Thinking Mindset to Sustainability Related Board Work
Directors need to do more than just read a package of sustainability information before a board meeting. They should inform themselves about anything they are unsure of and reflect on their thoughts. They may even form an opinion at this stage while still leaving themselves open to other points of view that might emerge at the board meeting.
Directors might be considering a management proposal as part of meeting prep. One thing to look for is evidence that they didn’t jump directly from internationally applicable solutions to local execution without following a critical thinking process explicitly related to their company’s circumstances (and budget).
Directors should question the relevance, reliability, authority, and purpose of what they read, see, and hear – to seek the truth rather than accepting things without asking; this is particularly true for smaller listed companies.
Applying a critical thinking mindset to sustainability board work means you’re willing to examine the facts, educate yourself about gaps in your understanding, and attempt an unbiased analysis of the information – all in a rational, clear-headed manner.
Using that mindset effectively requires specific thinking skills – interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.
The Six Ways:-
- Interpretation skills. Being able to categorise, decode significance, clarify, and comprehend the meaning of experiences, situations, or data. For example, paraphrasing someone else’s idea brings more clarity to a discussion.
- Analytical skills. Examining ideas and information, considering all aspects of a problem, and making connections between ideas, for example, identifying the unstated assumptions in an argument.
- Evaluation skills. Assess the credibility of claims, the quality of arguments, and the strength of the relationship among them. For example, judging if a particular idea is relevant to the situation.
- Inference skills. Questioning the evidence, developing alternatives, drawing valid conclusions, and forming hypotheses. For example, predicting what could happen next based on current facts.
- Explanation skills. Being able to state results, justify reasoning, and present compelling arguments, for example, clearly stating the factors you used to judge the quality of a presentation.
- Self-regulation skills. Being able to monitor your thinking to question or correct your reasoning or conclusions, for example, examining your views on an issue to look for personal bias or self-interest.
“Critical thinking is certainly a skill, but when possessed as a mindset – a playful and humble willingness – it shifts from labour to an art. It asks, ‘Is this true? By what standard?’” – Terry Heick, founder of TeachThought
In the boardroom, the best way to apply these critical thinking skills is with questions like these:
- Interpretation Questions: What does this mean? What was intended by saying that?
- Analysis Questions: What are your argument’s pros and cons? What assumptions must we make to accept that conclusion?
- Evaluation Questions: Why do we think this source is trustworthy? Given what we know, how confident can we be in our conclusions?
- Inference Questions: How would things change if we abandoned that assumption? What are the consequences of doing things that way?
- Explanation Questions: Please tell us how you conducted that analysis. How would you explain why this particular decision was made?
- Self-Regulation Questions: OK, what are we missing before we commit? Can we revisit these factors before making a final decision?
- Critical thinking isn’t about being pessimistic about sustainability reporting. It’s about approaching problems with an open mind and relying on evidence and robust analysis.
- When management proposes, look for evidence that they followed a logical process.
- A critical thinking mindset relies on interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-reflection skills.
- You can strengthen your critical thinking skills by practising them personally.
Boards of directors have a critical role in investor relations, acting as a liaison between management and shareholders. They oversee management, assess and approve strategic plans, and ensure that shareholders’ interests are considered.
To be effective at this task, board members must be purposeful and deliberate in their decision-making, ensuring they have adequate information, setting clear expectations for management, monitoring the company’s relationships with its stakeholders and facilitating innovation that makes these tasks more straightforward.
Critical thinking about sustainability reporting in listed African companies appears to be neglected due to illiquid markets, smaller-sized companies and limited awareness and resources.
Nowadays, company information appearing online should be a central part of any company’s investor relations strategy. This includes but is not limited to:
- Updated share charts
- Complete news archive
- Up-to-date IR and sustainability documents
- 13 Easy Steps to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills. Bernard Marr. Forbes. August 2022.
- Critical Thinking Is About Asking Better Questions. John Coleman. Harvard Business Review. April 2022.
- Critical Thinking: What Is It and How Can You Develop This Skill? Tatiana Melnichuk. Forbes. April 2022.
- The Critical Mindset of The Board Member. Deedee Myers, PhD. CU Management. August 2019.
- 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking. Helen Lee Bouygues. Harvard Business Review. May 2019.
- What is critical thinking? Learn HQ. Monash University.
- Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts. Peter Facione. ResearchGate. July 2015.
This rewritten article was originally written by Scott Baldwin.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.
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AfricanFinancials works with Boards, CEOs and companies who want to build sustainable businesses through better corporate and investor communications. Our focus is online investor relations to promote secure two-way communications with investors and stakeholders.