Are You a Critical Thinker?

Laura E. Mercer Traavik

The misuse and uncritical application of research in management is dangerous. Managers and organizations should utilize the research critically and experimentally.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Management based on evidence

To improve decision making and performance in organizations we need to look at the research, the evidence of what works and what does not work. However, evidence alone is not enough.

In recent times research has either been rejected as false or invoked as the truth to substantiate managerial action. Often we hear “research shows...” and the discussion stops.

The fact is that research evidence can support leaders and managers in making better informed decisions and move them away from decision making based on prejudice, personal preferences, or unanalysed experience.
However, this requires that the evidence is valid and the application of the evidence is correct. Today evidence based management is facing two serious threats.

  1. Lack of trust in the evidence.
  2. The misunderstanding or misuse of the evidence.

Trust has been shaken

Evidence based practice originated in medicine so that physicians were able to treat patients with the most up-to-date knowledge.

Due to the growing body of research there was a need to synthesize and communicate the critical scientific findings so that doctors could use it. Around the turn of this century organizational researchers, concerned about the academic-practice gap, realized the importance of helping managers by more clearly communicating and synthesizing the findings from the management research.

Recently trust in the evidence has been shaken. The growing controversies both within social and natural sciences, have uncovered measurement instruments which are inaccurate, statistics that are flawed, data which is weak, biased research that industry has paid for, and an inability to replicate seminal studies. A fundamental question facing practitioners is whether the evidence is good evidence.

So that managers and leaders can have confidence in the research, ongoing quality assurance from the academic community is required. Recently there has been an increased effort to increase the validity of both management and psychological research by improving methods and reporting, and advocating replication.

Practitioners can engage in quality assurance by using a few fundamental indicators of good evidence: firmly rooted in established theory, based on multiple studies, and internationally recognized in academic communities, and high quality publication sources.

Translating evidence into organizational practices

Evidence is built on simplified models of the world and therefore cannot be directly transferred into practice. For managers and leaders evidence based management requires translating principles based on good research (evidence) into organizational practices.

These principles need to be interpreted and adapted to the complexity of organizational life. Putting a principle into practice requires more than evidence of the principle, it requires the active involvement of the practitioner.

Evidence based management requires practitioners to use their own expertise and judgement, information from the local context, critical assessment of the best research evidence, and the viewpoints of the people affected by the decision. During this process managers and leaders need to be in dialogue with the academics to understand the content and quality of evidence.

Organizational changes and context, and the role of multiple actors must be taken into account. Research must be creatively and critically used by managers, otherwise the evidence will be misused or erroneously applied.
Perhaps, the notion of evidence informed practice, put forward by some academics, might be a better representation of how to use evidence in organizations.

The role of critical thinking

Management research is not a monolithic, unified field of knowledge. Merely summarizing the management research encounters fundamental challenges: multiple goals, different methodologies, and different assumptions.

In medicine there is generally agreement about the effectiveness of some techniques but management does not have this consensus - there is no settled idea of what constitutes effective management and there is no one methodology used across studies. This requires even more emphasis on the role of critical thinking by managers and leaders.

Academics need to be less absolute about findings, and understand that research evidence must be translated into principles and then practice. They need to engage with managers and leaders and communicate clearly the evidence they have and identify core mechanisms and principles.

For managers and leaders, the message is: do not selectively choose individual studies to support your beliefs or actions, but use the body of evidence critically, judiciously, reflectively, and experimentally.

Evidence should inform practice not rigidly define it. Evidence should help start the conversation, not stop it.


  • Learmonth, M., & Harding, N. (2006). EVIDENCE-BASED MANAGEMENT: THE VERY IDEA. Public Administration, 84(2), 245-266. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.2006.00001
  • Rousseau, D. M. (2006). Is there Such a thing as “Evidence-Based Management”? Academy of Management Review, 31(2), 256-269. doi:10.5465/amr.2006.20208679
  • This article was first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2019. BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School. 

Text: Associate Professor Laura E. Mercer Traavik, Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 29. January 2019

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