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Benefits Of Different Thinking Styles And Critical Thinking

What’s your thinking style? Just like we have personality preferences for introversion and extroversion, we also have preferred ways of thinking about problems.

Typically, we handle problems in a tried and true way that we’re comfortable with. We don’t even know we have a thinking style because it’s just who we are, yet we do have different ways of thinking. In fact, we may have six or seven different styles of seeking a decision.

Understanding how you think and how your teammates think could be essential for groups who must work together effectively. When you consider successful teams–though they are measured by what they produce–they function better when they have diverse thinking styles.

Research shows that it is ultimately how teams think together that most determines their performance. Instead of assigning groups based on personality traits, skills and strengths, managers might want to evaluate how potential members think.

What Is a Thinking Style?

According to Pearson Assessments, thinking styles are positive habits that contribute to better critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. While no one thinking style is better than another, a balance of the various types results in better decision-making. Their online self-assessment measures how individuals use seven different approaches to thinking:

  • Analytical: clear thinking, orderly and rational
  • Inquisitive: curious, alert and interested in the surrounding world
  • Insightful: prudent, humble, reflective and strategic
  • Open-minded: intellectually tolerant and fair-minded
  • Systematic: conceptual, process-oriented and intuitive
  • Timely: efficient, reliable and responsive
  • Truth-seeking: independent, tough-minded and skeptical

ThinkWatson has a self-assessment you can take for free. Knowing your preferred style will help you approach problems and decisions with the right mindset. Which of these best describes your habitual thinking style?

6 Thinking Hats

Another expert, Edward De Bono, describes thinking styles in terms of six colored hats. With the concepts of Professor De Bono published in Six Thinking Hats, you explore six different views of a problem by putting on an imaginary hat for each perspective.

This method helps you explore a problem more robustly to get unstuck from your habitual style of thinking. It’s a powerful way for teams to look at different angles of the problem. The metaphor of different thinking hats helps people explore alternative or even competing views.

The six thinking hats of De Bono are:

  1. White Hat – the facts and figures
  2. Red Hat – the emotional view
  3. Black Hat – the “devil’s advocate”
  4. Yellow Hat – the positive side
  5. Green Hat – the creative side
  6. Blue Hat – the organizing view

It’s easy to change hats – at least metaphorically and temporarily. The experience can alter our views dramatically. Here are some key benefits:

  • By switching hats, you switch perspective.
  • It’s easier to ask people to wear another hat than to tell them to change their thinking.
  • You can reduce meeting time spent arguing and, instead, engage in constructive dialogue.
  • You can balance out the needs of different styles.

What color is your hat?

Two-Dimensional Thinking Patterns

The way we approach problems and make decisions is complex, perhaps more so than simply identifying with six or seven distinct styles. There’s an interesting article about this from Harvard Business Review, November 25, 2015: "What Kind of Thinker Are You?" by Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele.

"… in today’s marketplace, the smartest companies aren’t those that necessarily out-produce the competition. Instead, it’s the organizations that outthink them. And while there are plenty of tools that help us quickly understand what our teammates do, it’s harder to tell how they think. ~ Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele

Only one aspect of collaboration is getting people aligned in what they do; the other is getting them aligned in how they think. After a lot of co-creation and trial and error, the authors, Bonchek and Steele, developed a three-step method for identifying thinking styles that delivers practical and meaningful results.

  1. Focus. The first step is to identify the focus of your thinking in a particular context or setting. Do you tend to pay the most attention to ideas, process, action, or relationships?
  2. Orientation. The next step is to notice whether your orientation in that setting swings toward the micro or the macro — the details or the big picture.
  3. The third step is to combine these two dimensions and see the thinking style at work in whatever context or setting you chose.

What’s Your Workplace Thinking Style?

First, choose your usual area of focus. Then match that to whether you tend to consider the big-picture view or the details.

For example, on the big picture, or macro, orientation:

  • Explorer thinking is about generating creative ideas.
  • Planner thinking is about designing effective systems.
  • Energizer thinking is about mobilizing people into action.
  • Connector thinking is about building and strengthening relationships.

Across the micro, or detail, orientation:

  • Expert thinking is about achieving objectivity and insight.
  • Optimizer thinking is about improving productivity and efficiency.
  • Producer thinking is about achieving completion and momentum.
  • Coach thinking is about cultivating people and potential.

It make sense that if we are going to form a team that works well together, we should ensure diversity in thinking while paying attention to alignment of purpose. According to the authors:

As a real-world demonstration, one company had their entire leadership team identify their thinking styles as managers and leaders. Looking at a heat map of the results, they realized they had a lot of big-picture Explorer thinking and a lot of Action thinking (Energizer and Producer), but very little Process thinking (Planner and Optimizer). The team was strong at coming up with big ideas and mobilizing everyone into action, but weak at working out the details and making things run efficiently.

Whether or not we can precisely define thinking style is not the point. When working in corporations with people who need to collaborate effectively, we benefit greatly when we raise our awareness of thinking styles. That in itself will help us understand ourselves and others better.


The “shocking” to “disturbing” headlines about employee engagement are almost routine these days. Study after study turns up numbers in the range of 70 to 80 percent of the workforce that’s either not fully engaged or actively disengaged at work, costing companies billions in annual turnover.

It’s not that executives aren’t throwing money at the problem. In fact, by some estimates, companies are collectively investing upwards of $1.5 billion a year into trying to turn it around, without much to show for it in return.

But there have been a few positive signs beginning to emerge. Modern Survey’s Fall 2014 Employee Engagement Index showed engagement levels are beginning to inch up, while disengagement is at its lowest point since the study began.

Sounds good, right? Well, keep reading.

That same survey examined “who wants to leave” and found that, surprisingly (or “alarmingly,” as they put it), nearly a quarter (24%) of fully engaged employees are currently looking to leave their companies.

Something is clearly wrong when companies are spending billions of dollars on engagement, and they can’t even count on their fully engaged people to stay.

One of the biggest culprits? By and large, leaders, managers, and even L&D and HR professionals don’t know their employees. They don’t know what they care about, what matters most to them or what they pay attention to. This is the critical “homework” that has to be done before you put all that money into engagement and retention efforts.

Because work of any kind is primarily a mental activity, the best way to get to know your employees is to start by understanding how they think. This is the filter through which they communicate, listen and process information. It influences how they approach a task and what kind of work they find stimulating (or draining).

As part of the process of writing the second edition of The Whole Brain Business Book, we looked at some of the data around work satisfaction, and generally speaking, we found that the highest satisfaction comes from those who have a strong alignment between their thinking preferences and the mentality of the work they’re assigned to do. The lowest are associated with those who are misaligned—unless they’re looking for a challenge in that specific assignment and have been prepared and are motivated to stretch.

And that’s why this isn’t just about them; it’s also about you. Unless you’re intentional about your thinking, which is what Whole Brain® Thinking is all about, your own preferences will become filters and blind spots, impacting how you communicate, make decisions, assign work and create development plans for others. When fully engaged people are still looking to leave, being able to see past your own preferences and “get inside their heads” is the critical missing piece.

So before you make assumptions about what’s going to engage and retain them, start with thinking. In our experience, it’s the much more cost-effective—and just plain effective—route.