The New Business Skill: Critical Observation

Everyone knows the value of having critical thinking skills. From grade school to college, people are encouraged to think critically about the world around us. The development of this skill is highly sought after in employees. But is there a skill that goes beyond just thinking critically, and that we should be looking for?

The answer is “yes.” It's called critical observation.

Critical observation is the ability to notice subtle details which allow us to maneuver situations more tactfully.

When trying to understand this concept, think of someone with “Sherlock Holmes’” intuition, but in the business world. People with this skill notice small details, such as patterns and behaviors, that others might overlook. These observations seem minuscule in the moment, but over time make a big difference to the bottom line.

For example, say an employee struggles to meet his deadlines, yet turns in great work overall. A manager with critical observation skills notices he only has trouble with deadlines that fall on the third week of the month due to child care issues. Knowing this, the manager arranges to move deadlines or give him flexibility to work from home. Had this pattern not been observed, the manager would have assumed the employee was being inefficient and then placed more pressure on him, ultimately leading to the departure of an otherwise great producer.

Another example: A marketing manager might notice customers tend to pay with cash during the day while credit card sales rise after 6 p.m. With further observation, she recognizes this is because day customers happen to be older (and more wary of banks) while evening customers tend to be younger professionals. With this information, she tailors an advertising campaign that individually targets these two demographics.

Critical observation can be just as important as reasoning for finding solutions to otherwise mysterious and tricky situations. In both of these scenarios, being observant not only helped solve problems, but also maximized returns. And the great thing is critical observation is a skill that can be learned and practiced.

So how can you identify and develop this skill in your organization? Look for...


Critical observers have a passion for inquiry. They are the ones who always have their hands raised in meetings wanting to know more about the topic everyone else feels was covered. Their questions are challenging and revealing because they don’t just ask more questions, they ask the right ones that offer insight to product weaknesses, marketing blindspots, and potential opportunities.

Development Opportunity: Give your staff the freedom to challenge you with tough questions in order to encourage them to think beyond the status quo. For instance, if you're announcing a new product line, let your team go over it with a fine-tooth comb and see if they spot any weaknesses in its concept. This gets them to apply critical observation skills at work.

A Broad Knowledge Base

Critical observers can be identified by their varied interests. For instance, he or she could be an accountant who plays in a band and studies chemistry. One can never predict what a person with this skill might do or be away from the office. This allows them to see relationships others might miss.

Development Opportunity: Provide plenty of opportunities to indulge in intellectual pursuits outside of your specific industry. This will give employees the space to seek other interests. One great way to do this is by offering to pay for a training course or online class that's not directly related to your industry, like social media classes or coding.

Creative Thinking

Perhaps as a result of having such broad interests, critical observers tend to make more connections between industries, roles, and ideas than the average person. They see the relation between music and medicine or art and therapy -- leading to some of the most important innovations of our time, like music therapy.

Development Opportunity: Encourage employees in their creative pursuits no matter what they might be. Reward employees who use creative ways to solve problems. This will encourage employees to use the parts of their brain they typically shut off while at work.

In today’s volatile and ever-changing market, businesses need to invest in developing and keeping employees with critical observation skills. No matter how advanced technology gets, there can be no replacement for a staff attuned to the trends and patterns of your atmosphere. By investing in this skill, you will ensure more opportunities are taken to make your business grow.

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