How to assess a candidate’s ability to apply critical thinking skills

I am a step-mother to a Year 12 student and it’s around this time of year when discussions about subject selection for her final school year are taking place with a view towards the most suitable courses to take ahead of University.

In truth, I just want her to enjoy this time in her life, keep safe and have great experiences while she learns more about who she is and how she might like to contribute to the world. 

Moreover, in this time of great technological advancement, I’ve been wondering if traditional learning models, such as Universities and Polytechnics, are becoming outdated and somewhat dinosaur-ish.  Anyone else up for ‘just-in-time-learning’?

All of this pondering aside, one skill that I think is worth her developing early, is the ability to apply critical thinking.   

I’ve spent some time working within and alongside senior leadership teams and what I’ve noticed is that critical thinking and the ability to diagnose problems and consider viable solutions is often in desperately short supply. 

When I partner with businesses on a recruitment assignment, one of the most frequent “must haves” for employers is critical thinking.  This requirement is no real surprise given the speed at which technology advances and change occurs, and with the frequency at which businesses need to solve problems that have never existed before.

Monash University defines critical thinking as a “kind of thinking in which you question, analyse, interpret, evaluate and make a judgement about what you read, hear, say, or write”. 

In a practical sense, applying critical thinking means being able to “clarify your thinking so that you can break down a problem or a piece of information, interpret it and use that interpretation to arrive at an informed decision or judgement”.

The best critical thinkers ask questions.  Lots of them.  Their questions range from straightforward probing inquiry seeking basic facts or information, to divergent and evaluation questions which allow for greater complexity and deeper analysis. 

The key question then becomes: “How do we assess a candidate’s ability to apply critical thinking?”

Of course, as a Recruitment Consultant, I partner with my clients to understand the problems they have in their business and match the right talent to help solve those problems.  Sheffield runs a thorough process to ensure that we meet this objective, and I am always particularly focussed on ensuring alignment between a candidate and client.   

Even with all our due diligence, when a candidate ends up in front of a client a huge opportunity exists to assess their critical thinking skills using a real-life scenario. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article discusses the idea of a Flip Interview where the interviewer provides a scenario or business problem and invites the candidate to explore how they might solve the problem through asking questions. 

The questions that a candidate asks displays the candidate’s thinking and decision-making process which can be evaluated by the interviewer. 

There are four key steps HBR sets out to conduct a flip interview:

  1. Framing – describe the scenario and invite the candidate to start the discovery process. 
  2. Linking – once the candidate has defined the problem, invite them to ask for more information about the wider context and what they need to know to get closer to a recommendation.  
  3. Interpretation – Based on the scenario originally provided, ask the candidate about how their understanding of the situation may have shifted.
  4. Proceed – Ask the candidate about what the immediate next steps are.

By evaluating the questions asked by the candidate while they work through their discovery process, you get insight into the way in which a candidate thinks as well as their strengths and approach to their work.  You might even get a window into the candidate’s passion or interest in the role.  Are they excited to be solving the kind of problem you have put in front of them?

Other questions you should be asking yourself include: Can they see things from different perspectives?  Have they grasped the wider context of the problem?  Do they pivot as they assess and reassess the information they are gathering?  Can they dive deep into detail and see how the information pulls together at 30,000 feet?  Are they exposing viewpoints that are not obvious or even previously considered by you? 

Overall, you’re looking for an exploring mindset; one that seeks to understand and is naturally curious.

If you recognise that critical thinking is a skillset missing from your senior leaders, how are you assessing it?  Is it working?  What could you do differently to achieve better outcomes than you have so far?   

Of course, if you need help mapping this flip interview approach as part of your next senior leadership appointment, please reach out to me.  


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