Common Barriers to Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

I am in a month of problem-solving… almost all the work that I am doing with client’s in October centres on enabling critical thinking to solve-problems and make effective-decisions. I am sure we can all agree that these skills are more important than ever, because we are in a year full of problems (which can also read as “opportunities,” if we know how to seize them) and we are likely going into another disrupted and potentially stressful year ahead. We are living in a disruptive, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and diverse (D-VUCAD) world and need to be conscious of the barriers that can get in the way of us being proactive and problem-solving effectively.

A problem-solving barrier is something that stops us from finding a successful solution to a problem. These barriers are often caused by cognitive blocks – how we think and feel – as well as by social and physical blocks. Everybody has cognitive blocks, and each of us will have different types and to different degrees. It is important to be aware of the range of barriers, and that the impact they have on problem-solving. In this way, the barriers can be overcome. These barriers can be removed by awareness of the pitfalls in problem-solving, and training on how to use a problem-solving methods correctly. Contact to see how we could help you and your teams take these Key Steps. For now, here’s some barriers you need to look out for:

  1. We’ve seen this before. This is often referred to as ‘Mental Set’ and results from reusing what has been successful in the past, rather than assessing and evaluating the problem. This can be a useful problem-solving strategy if it is indeed exactly the same problem you have dealt with before. However, in a D-VUCAD world that means problems might look like each other but actually need a different solution so we don’t fall prey to the…
  2. Pattern of insanity. Einstein coined this phrase, which is a result of doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. As mentioned in point 1, this can be a result of ‘Mental Set’ or it could be a result of ‘Functional Fixedness’ where people think that an object has only one function. It could also be a result of ‘Confirmation Bias’ that arises when the approach taken is to confirm a preconceived solution.
  3. Head in the sand. This barrier if often linked to the thinking, “It’s not my problem.” This can be as a result of silos, team conflict or a culture of “each man for himself,” being overly stressed (so we avoid the problem), perceived lack of time, lack of confidence, lack of autonomy, fear of failure and so on.
  4. Physical constraints. ‘Unnecessary Constraints’ links to trying to solve a problem using previous experience of what has worked in a situation and trying to force it to work in the current situation, rather than looking for a new solution. This can give rise to the pattern of sanity. There might also be legitimate constraints, like budget, time or headcount, that can hinder problem-solving if they are severe and unrealistic.
  5. Red herrings. ‘Irrelevant Information’ is often caused by people diverging from the problem itself, onto other topics they feel are related or presenting too much information. Following this red herring takes you further away from getting to the root of the problem, meaning that even if a solution is found, it might not address the actual problem.
  6. Thinking there is no solution. ‘Confirmation Bias’ can play a significant role here. It could result in looking for evidence to confirm your belief that it is impossible to solve the specific problem. For example, before Covid-19, most people would have thought it impossible to solve many of the problems that we’ve faced as a result of the global pandemic. When there was no choice, we managed to do what was previously thought to be impossible.
  7. Survival brain or an Amygdala highjack. We’re born equipped with the most sophisticated piece of equipment on the planet. Yet too few receive lessons on how the brain works, and more importantly, how to use it optimally. If we’re stressed and haven’t learnt to manage our emotions, our survival brain, rather than our thinking brain, dominates. We gear down and get ready to fight or flee. This means that when we are in greatest need, we try to solve our biggest problems with our lowest IQ. This is why emotional intelligence is so important and critical to success in all that we do, including problem-solving. Many things can trigger a survival brain hijack. Get to deeply know and understand yours so you can manage them and really…

“be the difference that makes the difference


Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

About Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

Sharon is a dynamic facilitator, speaker and executive coach with over 20 years’ experience in leadership and organisational development and transformation. She is a registered Education, Training and Development Practitioner (ETDP), holds an Honours degree in Psychology and practices as an NLP master practitioner. She is also one of only three women in South Africa to hold the title of Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) – it’s the Oscar of the speaking business.

Sharon’s PhD thesis contributed a framework for holistic and sustainable leadership development that has been published by Rutgers University in the USA. She is faculty of Henley Business School and highly sought-after by leading corporates because she works hand-in-hand with them to create sustainable results and long-term success. Sharon has become known for her practical approach, useful tools and genuinely caring manner. She is really looking forward to working with you and taking Key Steps to ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’