By Mickey Skidmore, ACSW

As a Sociology instructor of more than ten years, I have long appreciated and helped in teaching the value of “critical thinking.” Courses such as Sociology (hopefully) teach higher order thinking skills. Such skills include: “the ability to see structure in apparent disorder, to handle complex structures and ideas, and to be able to develop multiple solutions to problems” (Shepard, 1993). Critical thinking, a synonym for higher order thinking skills, is a necessity to compete successfully in a modern economy. In fact many Sociology texts stress that employers are interested in three types of functional skills: the capacity for working well with others; the ability to write and speak fluently; and capabilities for problem solving (Shepard, 1993).

Recently I have become increasingly concerned with what I perceive to be the lack of critical thinking in the service oriented workplace. Friends of mine in the Raleigh, NC have mentioned an increasing presence of articles in the local newspaper criticizing poor customer service in their community. Has anyone other than me noticed the apparent contradiction between what employers are saying they want in their employees, and the increasing emphasis of “McDonaldization?”

For those unfamiliar with this concept, allow me to briefly digress. McDonaldization was popularized by the McDonald’s franchise – breaking down the process of providing their products into single tasks. Forget about the idea of simply making a hamburger. One person was “trained” to prepare the buns; another the patties, another focuses soley on preparing the dressings/toppings; still another places a predetermined amount of french fries into a basket and dumps it into the grease. Within a specified time period a buzzer or alarm signals to this worker when to retrieve the basket and place it under the heat lamp. In recent years you may have even noticed that McDonald’s was one of the first to implement the second drive-in window: one for collecting your money (which is all they do), and one for delivering your food order. Get the idea? Trained in this method, within this system, one is not required nor expected to “think,” but simply to complete their task – routinely, over and over during their shift.

Having demonstrated considerable financial success employing this method, other fast food chains soon mimicked McDonald’s, and the die was cast. It seems to me that this trend has and continues to spread to other dimensions of the service industry as well, and in the end is contributing to poor customer service. This is not a small point considering that the service industries are the largest and fastest growing sectors of our economy. (We do not manufacture nearly the amount of products we used to, instead – we service each other to death!).

Those familiar with previous “Perspectives” at this site (or anyone who has attended any of my training seminars) may recall that I tend to refer to this trend as “reductionism,” or “the violence of reductionism.” (Gilligan, 1997). When a workers role in a service oriented business is continually reduced or chipped away, should we be surprised that they lack critical thinking skills? When we consider these implications and apply them to the mental health and medical fields it’s not surprising to me that patients (customers) are increasingly dissatisfied with the care they receive – namely because virtually every dimension of these systems are being reduced. Managed care and insurance companies have systematically reduced what they will pay for in the way of care. Which in turn has reduced the length of stay for many treatments. Ultimately, this has led to a reduction of overall services available. Meanwhile, the professionals who provide the treatment of care (including physicians) have found their roles steadily reduced into more mechanistic and technical positions. Although not the only discipline, perhaps the time honored tradition of nursing is a prime example.

Consider the following passage:

“Critical thinking is a systemic approach that views thinking as a process that can be changed and improved. It is a problem solving approach that improves the thinking process itself. The skill of critical thinking can help nurses decide what they believe about an issue, defend the issue, evaluate the situation/problem, and take the appropriate action. Nurses who use critical thinking consistently will find it can enhance the quality of their patient care, help them serve as health care advocates to the community, and expand their own opportunities for career advancement” (NWAHEC). Yet, a nursing colleague recently related to me after attending a nursing workshop, that most nurses do not develop critical thinking skills until 3-5 years into their career.

Finally, many employees find themselves binded by the contradiction of the employers themselves. On one hand employers say they want employees with critical thinking skills, yet, when a worker finds themselves in a situation where they try to problem solve, they are often micro-managed or encouraged to function strictly within the limits of their increasingly reduced roles.

The one thing I’m certain about is this: it will require some serious and creative critical thinking to resolve this dilemma if the service industries hope to avoid worsening of it’s tarnished image and provide better customer service.


1) Shepard, Jon M. Sociology (Fifth Edition). West Publishing Company, 1993.

2) Northwest AHEC, Nursing Section. Critical Thinking: Your Key to Success (Action Plan Booklet). Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

3) Gilligan, Stephen. The Courage to Love. W.W. Norton & Company,1997.