Employers Want “Critical Thinkers,” But Do They Know What It Means?

Can you hire for a skill that’s so vague?

Employers Want “Critical Thinkers,” But Do They Know What It Means?
[Photo: Flickr user Richard O. Barry]

“Critical thinking.” It’s a phrase as vague as “results-oriented individual” or “problem-solver.” Companies call for job applicants that are both worker bees and world-class innovators, prepared to paint outside the lines–but only in the brand’s monochromatic colors.


According to an American Management Association survey, 72% of employers feel that critical thinking is key to their organization’s success, but only half of those surveyed said their employees actually show this skill.

When hiring managers want critical thinkers, what do they really mean?

In an attempt to clear up the term’s vague definition, the Wall Street Journal recently spoke with social science professionals, hiring managers, and job-seekers to find the real definition of the term.

Here are the traits they agree critical thinkers show:

They Read Between The Lines

Thinking critically involves “the ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise,” says Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor. Recognizing the difference between fluff and facts keeps a company from becoming tone-deaf to their own audience.

They Dig Deeper

“Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking,” is how Linda Elder, educational psychologist and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, defines this trait.


They’re Skeptical

“Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?” asks Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting at Goldman Sachs Group. Critical thinkers know not to jump on the first good idea they find. They consider all possible routes–and are ready to show their work, on how they arrived.

They Come Prepared

The WSJ cites a Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 college students and 1,000 hiring managers on problem-solving preparedness: fewer than half of the employers surveyed felt that the students were equipped with solid problem-solving skills, while 69% of the students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for the workplace. Critical thinkers don’t rest on their memorization and regurgitation skills–they know that real problems occur outside of textbook knowledge, and are agile enough to find ways to solve them creatively.

But how does a job-seeker prepare to stand out in critical thinking ability? The American Society of Employers has a few suggestions:

Play “devil’s advocate.” Incorporate conflicting data–and research all sides of the data–before making a decision.

Challenge assumptions. Be skeptical about “doing something because that’s how it’s always been done,” whether it’s as simple as meeting structure or far-reaching as how the company talks to clients. Is it a proven method, or just an old habit?

Consider other sides. When a great solution to a problem comes up, don’t just “go with your gut.” Test it against colleague’s opinions and experience, and consider other possible paths.


Network smarter. Gathering connections with experts in your industry means more people to reach out to, when you need a second or third opinion.

[h/t: The Wall Street Journal]

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.