So You Want to Hire a Critical Thinker!

So You Want to Hire a Critical Thinker!

by Sara Bennett | October 26, 2023

0 Author-Jeanne, HIRING. EMPLOYEE SELECTION, Lead Gen Content - Candidate Selection Employer Buzz, get connected

You’re not alone.

According to recent research, the number of job postings requesting “critical thinking skills” as a candidate requirement, have doubled since 2009. We see the same trend in our own business.

We’re also noticing that the need to for critical thinking skills is fast becoming business critical.    All businesses need employees who they can count on to get engaged with the success of the business – to pay attention to things that could impact the business either positively or negatively, to get the information they need to recommend a fix. This is especially true for  small to medium sized companies.

This blog is about how to hire employees who have what is commonly referred to as critical thinking skills.  We know these skills can be nurtured and develop0d in a current employee, but its a whole lot easier if you vet candidates for these skills prior to hire. 

But first let’s get clear on what we mean by critical thinking skills.   

Here’s some things we hear client’s say when talking about critical thinking….

  • “I would love to involve my team in more strategic issues, but they just don’t always see the big picture.”
  • “I wish our sales people would think more analytically about who they select as targets. We seem to be wasting a lot of time chasing the wrong clients.”
  • “I’m having trouble trusting Gretchen to solve problems on her own. She isn’t good about challenging her assumptions before she decides what to do.”
  • “We’re having trouble with John’s purchasing decisions.  He has a hard time getting past a good sales pitch.”
  • “I’m very concerned there isn’t anyone on my team I can count on to spot issues before they become serious problems.”

As you look thru this list it becomes clear that the term “critical thinking” means something different depending on the job, the work environment, and perhaps most importantly, our client’s  expectations. When we help a client hire a critical thinker the first thing we do is help them do some critical thinking of their own.  And our approach is always behavioral.

  • What do “critical thinking” behaviors look like on the job, in your work environment? 
  • What situations come up in your work environment that create the need for what you call critical thinking?

As you can imagine, the answers to these questions are all over the place. That is actually the GOOD NEWS since once we know what critical thinking behaviors look like in our client’s work environment we can create a screening and/or hiring process to  uncover candidates who already demonstrate these same (or similar) behaviors in their past jobs.   While these critical thinking behaviors tend to fall into a few descriptive buckets (ex.  curious, analytic, etc.) it’s the actual critical thinking behaviors from the actual work environment that become the foundation of any screening process designed to uncover a “critical thinker.”

As a quick aside, one thing we notice is that its easy for clients to confuse critical thinking behaviors with other types of cognitively driven behaviors.  Creative thinking behaviors, for example, are very different from critical thinking behaviors.  You don’t want to confuse the two when you put together your screening process.  From our perch, critical thinking behaviors are more about gathering facts, doing analysis, using judgement to make the right decisions once facts are gathered.  Creative thinking, on the other hand, is more about working with limited pieces of information, using highly developed intuitive skills, to come up with new and innovative ideas or approaches.  While both can be  important skill sets in a problem solving setting, most situations lean more heavily into one rather than the other.  Think about the difference when hiring for an engineering client compared to a client who runs a marketing firm.  Both clients might request “critical thinking skills” but what those clients really need are very different sets of behaviors.

Hopefully you are starting to see why the first step in any hiring process is to always get clear on the actual behaviors a client has in mind when they use a particular word-critical thinking being the perfect example of a skill that doesn’t have a fixed meaning for every hiring manager.  Its always the behavior that the client describes that really matters.

How Do We Screen Candidates for “Our Kind of” Critical thinking?

Once we’re clear what critical thinking behaviors are needed, we know what needs to be added to or changed about how we screen and evaluate candidates.  The easiest changes happen during either or both the screening or evaluation interviews.

There are, for example, a handful of questions that can be added to a screening  interview that can help you get a quick look at the  candidate’s mindset when it comes to critical thinking.  One or two of the following might be possibilities depending on the type of behaviors you are looking for….

In your previous jobs, how would you describe your bosses expectations with respect to decision making?  Were you encouraged to make decisions on your own, or did they like to be more involved?  What kind of work environment do you prefer when it comes to having oversight from a boss?  Why?

Have you ever noticed an issue with a work process that you felt needed to be addressed, or even a process that you observed could be improved?  Describe.  What did you do with your ideas?

Has your boss ever asked you to get involved with a project that you didn’t know much about?  What kind of research did you do before joining the project team?

Have you ever found an error in a report that you knew was being used by your boss to make important decisions?  How did you handle that?

Have you ever been in a situation where you were given a specific problem to solve or a task to complete and you didn’t quite know how to approach it?  What did you do to find solutions?

When it comes to the more in depth evaluation interview typically conducted by the hiring manager, you have a chance to be very specific, pulling scenarios from the actual work environment and asking a candidate about their experience in the same or similar situations.

  •  One of the things we emphasize in our work environment is everyone’s role in spotting small issues before they become bigger          challenges.  These are things you might uncover in your own job or a team might uncover in work they do together that are initially small problems but can grow if not addressed.   With that need in mind, tell me about a time in your previous jobs where you either uncovered an issue with work that was assigned to you or saw that your team was having difficulty executing a new process assigned to them by your manager.

          Follow up questions would focus on the detail….

  • How did you address the situation? Who did you talk to about the issue?  
  • Did others tend to agree with your observations, or ????
  • What eventually happened with the issue you uncovered?

Note that you are NOT ASKING how the candidate  might handle the same or similar situation in the future, but how they handled it in the past.  This is a BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW…not a  cognitive exercise.  

To create your interview, go thru every situation you can think of in your work environment where “critical thinking” is in play and craft a behaviorally based question for each.  Pick 2 or 3 of your best questions,  ask each candidate the same questions, and sit back and enjoy seeing the differences in each candidate’s “critical thinking” behavior.

We don’t want to over-simplify the nuances involved in any interview, but when you keep it behavioral it’s very easy to see the differences between candidates that are likely to show up on the job.  We promise!

What About Hypothetical Questions?

As a general comment, we are not big fans of hypothetical (i.e.. what if) questions as they tend to tap more into a candidate’s cognitive “think of your feet” skills which may or may not be relevant to on the job performance.  That said, when interviewing candidates for jobs where most candidates are not likely to have a work history requiring critical thinking behaviors  one or two hypothetical questions might be used to reveal differences between candidates and their potential for critical thinking.

Here’s an example of a couple of hypothetical question that might work in that scenario…

  • Let’s pretend your boss requested a meeting with you to discuss some issues with a work process that you know quite a bit about even though you may not have done it personally but you’ve been impacted by the issues it has created for your role.  Your boss asked that you come to the meeting prepared to share you perspective and perhaps offer up a few ideas.  How would you prepare for this meeting?
  • You’ve been asked to interview 2 vendors who are in the running to provide a product or service to your company and give your boss your recommendation about which vendor to hire.  How would you approach this assignment?

Pay Attention to the Candidate’s Overall Interview Behavior

While interview behavior is not the same as behavior on the job, it is helpful to review each candidate’s interview presentation.  Look for signs that the candidate tends to act in ways that aligns with the critical thinking behaviors you are looking for.  Based on their answers to your interview questions,  what did you learn about  their thought process – is it methodical or haphazard?  Detailed/thorough or intuitive?  What questions did they ask about the job, the company, the work style of the boss they would be working for?   Did they seem to understand the organizational goals of their previous employers?  Did they figure out a way to contribute to those goals?

All of these interview observations can be important to your overall assessment, keeping in mind there is no “right answer” only the answer that best aligns with the type of critical thinking behavior you’re looking for.

Hope you enjoyed this road map into hiring candidates based on the “critical thinking” behaviors that best matches the kind of critical thinking that you want employees to display in your work environment.   Our guess is that vetting candidates for their critical thinking skills is gong to become an increasingly important component of your hiring process.


PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest employers find and hire employees based on the “right fit” for over 45 years.

A 5-time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditionsdirect hire professional recruiting servicesEmployer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate assessment services our clients can purchase a la carte.

If you’re a hiring manager looking for a service that will actually “make a difference” to who and how you hire, contact us at 425-637-3312 or fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!

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