Critical Thinking Skills

People tend to replicate their past behavior, so understanding what they did in the past provides an accurate barometer of what they will do in the future.

By Bob Piper, Principal, The Talon Group | December 31, 2003
Bob Piper, Principal, The Talon Group

Perhaps the most important dimensions to determine when interviewing a job candidate are critical thinking skills — the ability to think logically and make smart decisions. A candidate with a history of poor critical thinking will have a tough time succeeding. The dimensions generally regarded as critical thinking skills are problem analysis, judgment and decisiveness.

They sound like topics from your Psychology 101 class, huh? Actually, it’s pretty simple stuff: what, why and how.

So how do you determine a candidate’s critical thinking skills? The key is to drill down to the reasons behind past actions. As a general rule, people tend to replicate their past behavior, so understanding what they did in the past provides an accurate barometer of what they will do in the future. Therefore, ask behavioral interview questions that put candidates in their own movie. These questions don’t focus on how candidates might act but rather how they actually handled themselves in the past. Again, history usually predicts the future.

Here are examples of drilling down to assess a candidate’s critical thinking skills:

Why a candidate left a company:
At what point did you begin considering a change and why?
When did these concerns first surface? How did you handle the situation?
What actions could the company have taken to remedy the situation?
What actions could you have taken to improve the relationship?

Why a candidate joined a company:
How did you find the company, or did it find you?
What due diligence did you do before joining the company?
What attracted you to the company?
How did the employment experience meet or not meet your original expectations?

Job-related questions:
What challenges did you face coming into your last job, and how did you handle them?
What do you consider to be your best successes and worst failures in the job?
What situations motivated or frustrated you? Why?
Given the opportunity, what would you have done differently in the job?
From which supervisors did you learn the most? Why and how?

These simple, reasonable questions can be asked conversationally. We are not trying to “trick” candidates but merely to understand them. Don’t accept a generic answer. If you are unclear about something, ask for clarification.

For example, when candidates say they moved to another company because it offered a “better opportunity,” ask for specifics. Was it money, career growth, a better work environment or what? How much of a net improvement was achieved? Did the candidate move to a lesser company in order to get the better opportunity? Did the candidate’s impression turn out to be accurate, or was the employment short-lived? What was the interview process like, and at what point did the candidate buy in to the company? Look for patterns in the candidate’s thought process, and an outline of the person’s critical thinking skills soon develops.

Answers should indicate a logical thought process and not a series of shallow, knee-jerk decisions. Focus should be on long-term strategic needs versus short-term desires. Top performers will have pondered these issues already and should be able to talk about them with little prodding.

Finally, allow candidates to talk freely. Behavioral interview questions should not be delivered in an interrogatory manner. The information often surfaces during the course of normal conversation. You just have to know what to look for.


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