Do you consider yourself to be a good independent thinker ? Are you proud you can formulate your own thoughts and make decisions all on your own ?

Certainly, the idea of thinking for oneself is often seen as a valuable personal quality for success in life and career. Especially in Western countries it is part of the cultural regard for individuality and, in the specific realm of leadership and management, is a key trait in the popular, traditional view of a leader being a heroic, self-reliant individual.

But, of course, particularly in a work environment, it often takes courage to think or say something different from the majority and the urge to remain silent can sometimes prevail so as not to feel uncomfortable in a group. In contrast, independent thinkers are not afraid to think differently or voice a different opinion. But nor do they think completely by themselves in a vacuum and ignore other people. And, what’s more, crucially, good independent thinkers approach their thinking in a careful and considered fashion, so their opinions are always well-founded, even if perhaps they might sometimes be different from other people’s thoughts.

Thinking skills have consistently over several years been found to be amongst the most significant ‘soft’ skills needed generally by people to be able to thrive in the future of work. For example, research done for the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report”, October 2020, found that the top-ranking, five skills which employers generally see as becoming more important over the coming years are: analytical thinking, active learning, complex problem-solving, critical thinking/analysis, and creativity. Four of these five skills concern thinking skills. Sadly, in spite of their importance, it appears that schools and colleges are failing to equip people with adequate levels of skill in these areas.

Independent thinking cuts across several of these (and other) areas of thinking, so it follows that it too is generally in a poor state. But independent thinking is actually a broader concept, calling for a variety of practices, habits and processes, not just specific cognitive skills. And there are, I think, some significant misconceptions about the subject. So, exactly, what does independent thinking involve ?

Not totally independent or totally rational

The first, fundamental point to note is that none of us are, in the purest sense, truly indepedent thinkers, no matter how much we might like the idea of self-reliance. All of us exist and have grown up in communities and social settings (from family to local communities and whole countries) where common sets of knowledge, beliefs, and values have been accumulated and shared with so many others. These beliefs range, for example, from basic norms in society at large that murder and theft are wrong to local or specific beliefs in an individual company that customers should be served in a certain way.

The point is that nobody “lives on an island” completely: all of us are influenced to some extent by others around us. What’s more, as humans, of course, we have a physiological need to ‘fit in’ with and to be seen to ‘get on’ with others: none of us wants to be too indepdendent! Of course, in organisations, the avoidance of too much independence by employees is positively necessary: if everyone was thoroughly independently-minded, there would be no cohesion or consistency and anarchy could result – this includes in the boardroom itself!

A related fact is that, as nobody has complete knowledge, skill or certainty in everything, all of us often do need to involve other people to come together and share – in order to achieve an overall better result, decision or output. We need the different or better ‘collective intelligence‘ of others to make up for our own gaps of knowledge or skill.

The second, key point I would make is that independent thinking is not the same as “critical thinking”, which is a major part of independent thinking, yes, but not the only type of cognitive skill that is relevant. Critical thinking is about objectively examining and assessing the truth, reliability, relevance and validity of ideas, data, arguments and conclusions. Its approach is about applying a rational, factual, scientific mind-set. In comparison, independent thinking involves a wider skill-set and broader mindset, including a readiness to look at situations and issues by applying several thinking approaches and various habits and practices (see below).

At the same time, I would argue that good independent thinkers should not be afraid of allowing a degree of (conscious) emotion when looking at an issue or situation. Being aware of one’s emotions (feelings) behind an opinion or belief increases one’s overall self-awareness and where or how certain elements of that opinion may be less sure, fixed, or less well thought through. And certainly, making an effort to consider what other individuals feel about a situation and why will surely help to produce a more revealing and insightful assessment of their position.

Nor should good thinkers be afraid of checking out what their intuition is suggesting: one’s sub-conscious mind is an under-appreciated, legitimate source of experience, insight, and wisdom (as well as feelings) about very many issues in life. The simple fact is that humans are, of course, emotional and intuitive creatures and almost all thoughts do involve some call upon the subconscious and feelings (not just rational, conscious beliefs) and a good independent thinker will always make a conscious effort to note and consider their influence.

Qualities of an independent thinker

Independent thinking is not the same as being a cynic, who holds a general lack of trust in others and the opinions they hold (often seeing others as driven by self-interest). Nor is an independent thinker quite the same as a sceptic, who is more trusting of others but does not let him/herself be easily persuaded to accept others’ views. Instead, independent thinkers, whilst they form and hold their own views with a lot of conviction, do not hold a general distrust or negativity towards others.

Independent thinkers are ready to critically think about other information or views they may across and possibly alter their existing views. They do this because they hold on to a combination of two key qualities: open-mindedness and intellectual humility: that is a willingess to seek out and engage with different viewpoints and the ability to let those experiences change their beliefs. Being a good, independent thinker means being forever curious about what’s going on around you and ready to tap into the intelligence of others, but equally having the courage to challenge those views before you may adjust your own view. Independent thinkers are intellectually self-confident, but not over-confident, ensuring they keep their ego separate from their intellect!

Other noteable personal qualities that help make for a good independent thinker include: the ability to look at issues holistically; the ability to synthesise; patience; the ability to tolerate ambiguity; empathy for other people: and personal ambition and persistence. And some valuable habits or interests that have been found to be useful (particularly in terms of helping to ‘broaden the mind’) are: a strong regard for personal learning and self-development; travelling widely across different countries; trying out varied leisure pursuits; keeping in touch with a wide circle of contacts and friends; reading widely; and keeping up generally with current affairs and what’s happening in the world around you.

Good practices and habits of an independent thinker

In my view, the essential starting point for a good independent thinker is to have a set of chosen ‘high-level’ personal values or principles in life together with some high-level aims or aspirations – which can together act as an overall ‘anchor‘ (reference frame) to guide you through life and how you think and make decisions. These values and aims will likely, of course, change over the years, but without them a person may tend to be like a ‘straw in the wind’, easily led by ad-hoc circumstances and other’s opinions or wishes. Of course, some people are quite happy and positively prefer to follow more the lead of others in some areas of their life (at work, for example) – and the overall stability of society needs this to some extent, of course, – but independent thinkers are more marshals of their own thoughts, for which they need their guiding anchor.

With this anchor in place, good independent thinkers usually try to adopt quite a systematic, overall approach in their thinking – similar to but not fully like critical thinking. Examples of relevant tactics include: carefully defining the core problem or issue; possibly breaking the problem down into more specific issues/elements; seeking out information helpful to the issue; analysing and double-checking data; questioning and examining existing assumptions and accepted beliefs; challenging and testing arguments through logic (looking out for any reasoning errors – sometimes referred to as ‘fallacies’); and developing conclusions and proposals based on data and reasoning. Of course, how many of these elements are applied and to what extent depends on factors like the complexity of the problem or situation, how much time is available, and how much data is easily available.

But independent thinking calls for other thinking modes than just critical thinking. As there is never just one way to look at an issue or situation, a good independent thinker will try to adopt a ‘dragonfly-eye‘ of the world, which means being able and willing to view a situation through multiple lenses (angles). This multi-angled view usually calls for applying a range of thinking modes and tools (for example, holistic thinking, creative thinking, abstract thinking, strategic thinking) and seeking out the views and wider expertise of other individuals connected to the issue or situation (for example, customers, employees, suppliers). Often, the best way to gain a dragonfly eye view is to “anchor outside” rather than inside the problem i.e. consider the broader ‘eco-system’ view as a starting point. The benefit gained is to see beyond the usual or familiar patterns that our brains lead us to perceive, and so achieve a richer, more insightful assessment of the situation and/or a btter solution to the problem.

Another crucial skill of a good independent thinker, of course, is making an effort to consciously think about and take deliberate action to try and mitigate against personal cognitive biases that can inevitably influence and ‘distort’ how a person views a situation or issue. Examples of common biases include ‘confirmation’ bias, risk/loss aversion, authority bias, and sunk-cost fallacy). A good leader will be sensitive to and think about biases in themselves as well as those apparent or possible in other people.

And some wider habits or precautionary actions for good independent thinking I would suggest are: i) set aside dedicated and extended time on a regular basis to calmly and more fully think through difficult or bigger issues and, whilst doing this, try and include some time for thinking about your thinking approach itself (what’s called ‘meta-cognition); ii) try possibly incorporating one or two ‘mindfulness’ techniques when doing some extended thinking – to really focus in the brain and help encourage free emergence of thoughts, particularly from the subconsious mind; iii) avoid the “urgency” instinct i.e. assuming a problem has to be dealt with immediately: this is not often the case and it is usually better to allow more time and seek additional information; iv) avoid “black or white” thinking i.e. automatically seeing a situaton as involving only two extremes and forgetting that many other positions can exist in-between; v) avoid the “straight line” instinct – assuming that all trends will continue as a straight line into the future; vi) avoid the tendency to pay more attention to negative or dramatic news at the expense of appreciating positive news or incremental changes; and vi) avoid generalising, stereotyping or putting things into categories too readily.

Independent thinking in the boardroom

The qualities and habits of good independent thinking are particularly important, of course, for directors and managers, as their judgements and decisions determine the success, or otherwise, of their organisations. Indeed, in the UK directors of big and small companies, listed and unlisted, for-profit and not-for-profit, are legally required by Section 173 of the 2006 Companies Act to exercise “independent judgement” in all their work.

The issue, of course, is that the individual thinking of directors is inevitably influenced – for better or worse – by the group context and political dynamics of the board as a whole. So, given this, it’s wise for boards (and senior teams) to adopt certain specific governance practices which can help reinforce individual thinking and lessen problems that can be caused by groups e.g. groupthink. A good set of guidelines for such practices was issued by the UK’s Chartered Governance Institute in july 2021: “The 12 elements of independent judgement for a UK board“. It’s worth summarising what those elements are:

The first four of those elements relate to what goes into the ‘raw material’ of choices given to directors: directors should give their full attention to written or spoken materials they are given; they should check, and where necessary question, the information presented, including measures and assumptions used; they should avoid undue reliance on any single individual’s expertise or the majority view; and they should check that proposals received take enough account of their contecxt i.e. influencing factors.

The next set of four elements deal with atttitudes and feelings in making choices: directors should use ‘constructive challenge’ questioning of managers to provide a fuller, informed view; they should stay free from undue influence by sectional interests or agendas; they should be aware of their own personal biases, agendas and emotions; and they should think of risk and uncertainty issues and ensure actions to mitigate them.

The final set of elements concerns the process used by directors for making choices: ensure there is an environment where diverse views are encouraged and dissent is seen as safe; check for the way options have been framed, including those which might have been excluded; appreciate the implications of trade-offs in the choice (including timings, consequences and feasibility issues); and be ready to consult on the choice with relevant stakeholders.

These twelve elements form, I think, a very valuable set of good practices but, crucially, they involve not just individual behaviours by directors but also appropriate process and procedure by the board overall. As such, therefore, the chair of the board obviously plays a key role in ensuring effective, overall thinking by directors. Also, though, wider influences have a bearing too, not least organisational culture and, particularly, if/how much directors are paid to hold their positions (I wonder sometimes how much the independent thinking of the few thousand directors of UK listed companies is sometimes compromised by their typical fee of many thousand pounds!). Sometimes, therefore, it can very much help – to foster and reinforce objective or fresh thinking by boards – to call in an external/independent facilitator to work with a board for certain meetings or projects.

Conclusion: be an independent thinker, but without being independent!

Undoubtedly, the ability to think and form judgements independently is a valuable human skill. For leaders, it is a most essential skill: for example, those perhaps with more charisma or passion or drive but little judgement are likely to have keen followers but more likely to risk leading them down the wrong path or come stuck when they come across problems needing fresh thinking!

But being a good independent thinker is not easy. It involves a wide range of different skills and practices, as outlined above – many cognitive but also many that are more behavioural or attitudinal in nature. And, most importantly, good independent thinking is not simply thinking by oneself and holding one’s views confidently, but rather a combination of thinking carefully and a willingness to engage with others with an open mind and possibly evolve one’s views in response. It’s the ability to detach but without being totally detached!

/ Written by Mike Owen, CEO & Principal Consultant at Owen Morris Partnership.

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