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7 Qualities of an Effective Critical Thinker

Blogs Jim Pelletier, CIA May 16, 2019

In the2018 North American Pulse of Internal Audit report, 95% of chief audit executives (CAEs) stated that critical thinking skills are essential to their function's ability to perform its responsibilities. When asked the degree to which their teams possess this skill, 95% of those same CAEs strongly or somewhat agreed that their teams adequately possess this skill. To me, these results assume a poorly understood definition of critical thinker that I believe has unfortunately reached a level of overuse, given that most auditors believe they are skilled at it.

In reality, most are not. Why? It doesn't necessarily come naturally to everyone. Critical thinking is as much about who you are as it is about what you are capable of.
Expectations of internal audit functions have evolved and internal auditors at all levels need to be able to provide value beyond finding something right or wrong. Internal auditors need to provide meaningful insights into the areas they are auditing and critical thinking is at the core of meeting this expectation.
Because it encompasses such a broad expanse, critical thinking involves qualities that all internal auditors can improve upon. First it requires a hard look in the mirror, and an assessment of what needs improving. Here are seven important qualities of a critical thinker:       

Situational awareness — Being constantly alert to what is going on around you. At its most simple, this is the difference between the person at a baseball game about to be hit by a foul ball and the person about to catch that ball. While this example helps to explain the concept, it is important to note that situational awareness is not limited to the physical world. From an internal auditor's perspective, it is critical to understand the psychological or political situation in which you operate. Who knows what? Who is really making decisions? How are people incentivized to act? Who controls the information? The ability to connect these dots is key.

Self-awareness of personal bias — Understanding your own personal biases and being able to set them aside, allowing you to consider information more holistically. Bias comes in many forms and, because it's part of one's core, is difficult to identify. Self-awareness is critical. One common (and unfortunate) bias that many internal auditors have is an assumption that people not cooperating with an audit must be hiding something. While this can be true, it is more often the fact that they simply feel threatened by a stranger coming in and evaluating their work. It is anatural human response to defend yourself and your group from those outside your group.

Open to diverse thinking and opinions — Recognizing that you are not the only one who can have good ideas and opinions, and being comfortable that your ideas and opinions might not be the best in a given situation. A good leader isn't concerned with who came up with the idea; he or she is concerned with selecting the idea that is best for a given situation.

Self-confidence in applying logic — Not only being logical but being confident in your application of logical thinking in a given situation.

Future focused — Looking beyond the current situation and/or "the way we do things" and envisioning the longer-term impact and interconnectivity of decisions. Understanding "where we are" not as a limiting factor, but as a launching pad for where we need to go.

Observation and articulation — Able to accurately observe a situation and take it all in. As, or even more, important for an internal auditor is the ability to articulate to others what was observed without distorting the information by adding, changing, or omitting relevant information purposefully or inadvertently.

Deep questioning — The ability to question, process the response, and follow up with additional questions until one's objectives are achieved. For example, too often we see a news reporter ask a great question, get a half-answer, and move on. As a viewer, it's incredibly disappointing. If you find yourself most often satisfied with the first answer you get, you are likely not getting to the root of the information you need. Ask yourself, "What am I trying to achieve?" followed with "Did I get the information I needed to achieve that?" It's okay for internal auditors to pause and think for a moment during an interview. In fact, moments of silence can be an incredible tool during an interview. Not only will others feel it necessary to fill the silence — often with interesting information — it gives you time to organize your thoughts and consider next steps.

These qualities serve as the essential foundation for critical thinking. As I mentioned, they don't come naturally to everyone. But when they are aware, some people are able to manifest them when necessary.

The true danger? Those who are not aware but still claim to be effective critical thinkers. Leaders who do so can drive teams down dangerous paths quickly or make decisions with disastrous, long-term consequences.

The simple solution? Don't assume you're a strong critical thinker just because you think it's expected. Instead, challenge yourself, be aware of these qualities, and set aside the time to apply them. Over time, they can be developed and result in more effective critical thinking.

That's my point of view. I'd be happy to hear yours.

Jim Pelletier, CIA

Jim Pelletier is Vice President, Portfolio Strategy, at The IIA in Lake Mary, FL.