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Active supervision challenge: Critical thinking

Critical thinking engages your brain to comprehend, assess, analyze and process information in a way that improves your decision-making


Hello there, Coach Paul here. How is your active supervision challenge going so far? I’d love to hear from you about the successes and challenges you are experiencing as you intentionally work on improving your active supervision skills.

In this series of articles, which debuted on Police1 in January, I outline the 10 skills of active supervision. Remember, active supervision is the continual and consistent enforcement of the rules of your organization.

Last month I reviewed performance management, and this month I cover critical thinking. I’ll define critical thinking, explain why it is important, describe how to think critically and provide a few techniques to help you improve your critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of engaging your brain to comprehend, assess, analyze and process information in such a way as to improve the quality of your actions, decisions and communications. It usually requires us to interrupt our automatic decision-making processes, challenge our assumptions and look at scenarios with fresh perspectives.

For example, you know the regular social and political activists in your community. By and large, they are a pretty peaceful lot, even when they are protesting their usual causes. As you are considering the deployment of your officers for an upcoming protest march, the critically thinking supervisor will ask questions like:

  • Is there anything different about this protest?
  • What is happening nationally, regionally, or locally that might affect how this protest proceeds?
  • What are my contingency plans if this protest turns violent?
  • What specific guidance do I need to give my officers in light of what happened at the January 6 Capitol riots to make sure that they are safe and confident in their abilities to provide high-level police services for this event?

Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is important because of the way the human brain works. We don’t have time all the time to think about every factor that affects our upcoming decisions and actions. Over time we develop mental shortcuts to reduce the time we spend thinking about things. These shortcuts are called heuristics and they help us make quicker decisions.

The two most common heuristics are the availability heuristic and the representative heuristic.

The availability heuristic involves making your decisions based on how easy (or available) it is to recall relevant information that might impact your decisions. For example, you recently attended a training course on distracted driving. In the course, you were shown the statistics on the number of people who drive distracted and saw pictures of the disastrous results. When your watch commander asks you what you think your area needs to focus on over the next quarter, you immediately say distracted driving enforcement, because that’s the information most available to you at the time.

The representative heuristic involves making your decisions based on how well a person or situation matches your mental model of your perception of similar people or situations. For example, when you played high school basketball, you had the coolest coach ever. He was encouraging, patient and knew the sport well. You enjoyed playing for him and learned a lot from him. Your new watch commander reminds you a lot of your previous high school basketball coach, so you are expecting him to be a really good leader.

What challenges do you spot in both of those examples? If you recognized the potential biases in those scenarios, you are exactly right. Over-relying on heuristics for our decision-making can lead to biases. In our first example, the supervisor in question did not stop to consider the other crime trends that may be happening in their service area. What if burglaries or armed robberies are the things that actually need the shift’s attention? And what about our second example? Just because the new watch commander reminds the supervisor of a former basketball coach who was a good leader, doesn’t mean the new watch commander will be a good leader also. The officer will need to evaluate the new watch commander in the present, not as a representative of someone from the past.

In both cases, a healthy dose of critical thinking would help improve the qualities of the supervisors’ decision-making and expectations.

How do I think critically?

First, determine if the situation requires critical thinking. Remember, not every decision requires critical thinking, only the more important ones.

Next, if this is a decision that requires critical thinking, take these three steps:

  1. Slow down. Give yourself permission to take the time to make a better-informed decision. Sometimes circumstances require you to make quick decisions, but most of the time they don’t.
  2. Consider your sources. Expand your information sources. If you are your only source, ask for input from others, especially someone whom you suspect has a different point of view than you do.
  3. Expand your options. Come up with more than one solution to the problem. Force yourself to come up with at least three options, even if the other two options seem completely outside your usual ways of thinking.

Bonus content: Tips and techniques

Before we close this article, I would like to share a few tips and techniques for those supervisors working in those special consideration areas that I mentioned in the first article.

Working supervisor (splits their time between supervising and performing line-level duties): If you are a working supervisor, your challenge will be feeling like you don’t have enough time to think critically. Resist this urge and remember that the five minutes you take to think critically now, can save you hours of work later.

Small agency supervisor (supervises a small group of paid and volunteer followers spread out over a distance): For small agency supervisors, your challenge will be in obtaining input from more people. It will be easy for you to get feedback from the people who are nearby and working with you. Take the time to reach out to those who may be working remotely or on different schedules than you. This will improve your decision-making quality and show them that you value their input.

Minority supervisor (supervises a group of followers who are different in regard to race, gender, ethnicity and age): If you are a minority supervisor, your challenge will be in expanding your options beyond your immediate experience base or comfort zone. Be willing to consider different perspectives and try out novel solutions. This will make you a better decision-maker and build trust with your followers along the way.


If you downloaded or printed the free active supervision checklist provided in the first article and linked here for easy download, go ahead and update it. Add three lines:

  • Slow down;
  • Consider your sources;
  • Expand your options.

Give yourself a new rating now that I have better defined these skills for you. Give yourself a + (plus sign) if you believe that you are good at the skill, a √ (checkmark) if you believe that you are ok at the skill, or a – (minus sign) if you believe you need to work on the skill. And then write down your plan for improving your critical thinking skills.

If you have any questions about this skill or any of the 10 active supervision skills, submit your questions here. We will gather them up and answer them for you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I’m Coach Paul, keep your eyes, mind and heart open out there.

NEXT: Active supervision challenge: Communication

Coach Paul Conor, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and management consultant who has been working with law enforcement leaders for more than 20 years. He is a former US Marine infantry officer, who led Marines in combat during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Coach Paul is an award-winning author, California state-certified Team Building Workshop facilitator and former university professor. He is also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department.