Critical Thinking in the Workplace: Strategies and Practices

By Michael Tomlin

If we accept as a premise that your business has a viable product or service, then what else does it need to be competitive and successful? After running through the list of good employees, a working business plan, sufficient operating capital, and the rest of standard business school fare, we hit the true competitive edge needed today:  a strong practice and culture of critical thinking.

Often misunderstood, critical thinking is different from strategic planning. It is the day to day conversations that have been taught and learned in how to discuss the issues that affect business viability and profitability. Imagine an NFL quarterback moving up to the line and looking at what he faces, then changing the play and his team members responding. The most successful quarterbacks are highly skilled at that process and succeed more often than not. Such is true of the critical thinking process in your business.

First, we need to understand that people – our customers, clients, and investors– think, shop, invest, buy and react daily through four perceptual filters. I call those the KBEE Filters:  Knowledge, Beliefs, Emotion and Experience. It is through each of these filters that our thoughts flow, and in fact are formed. To be exact, each issue, action, interaction, happening, situation, or occurrence, begins its journey to our thoughts cleanly and bias-free; yet it seldom ends its journey there. It must fight for survival in a mind of competing filters, each struggling for its rightful place and sometimes for supremacy.

To capture the power of critical thinking and to use the KBEE Filters in the workplace, we learn to infuse them into our conversations and planning sessions. When confronted with a business problem, challenge, or opportunity we go straight to the following questions:

  1. Knowledge – What do we know about this, what laws or codes apply, what are our competitors doing?
  2. Beliefs – What is our philosophy on this, what do we think is right, what are our values related to this issue?
  3. Emotion – How do we “feel” about these options, what does your heart tell you, what do you feel in your gut?
  4. Experience – Have we been down this road before, what does history tell us, what have we learned from past trends?

Once we have those answers, just like an attorney we go to “discovery.” We vet and test our answers for unintended consequences. This conversation and action alone can keep your business off the front pages of the newspaper.

This conversation can be as brief or as deliberate as time and strategy will allow. It is a model that both focuses and “forces” the critical thinking necessary for important business decisions to be made. By teaching it to your employees at all levels, and using it regularly, you can gain the true competitive edge of contemporary times – the ability to think well through all levels of business.

Dr. Michael Tomlin is Professor and Chair of the School of Business at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. He is widely published and a leading Critical Thinking teacher and trainer across the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions. Contact Mike at or

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