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12 June 2020
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Covid-19: critical thinking in times of crisis

by Dr Victoria Tzortziou Brown

FMLM Council Member and Royal College of General Practitioners joint Honorary Secretary

The ability to think critically is particularly important at times of uncertainty when the available information is likely to be ambiguous. In such situations, an active form of reflection which is deliberate, persistent and challenges preconceptions can assist towards establishing shared situational awareness and can lead to a better understanding of the meaning and implications of information, options and decisions.

One of Socrates's most enduring contributions to ethics and moral philosophy was the art of questioning and dialectic inquiry, as described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues at the turn of the fourth century BC. Socrates highlighted the importance of questioning assumptions, carefully examining reasoning, seeking evidence, and considering implications of actions, all of which form the basis of critical thinking.

However, Socrates’ habit and skill of questioning and debating others with the aim of achieving a deeper discernment of the material and the nuances involved, is not something that is consistently taught and actively encouraged within our societies. Consensus-seeking tendencies can be so strong they can lead to groupthink among leaders as well as followers and can compel people to ignore clear warning signs and pursue a disastrous course of action.

There are several examples of poor political, policy and business decisions that have been attributed to groupthink, ranging from the Challenger space shuttle disaster to the Watergate scandal. The risk of leadership groupthink increases at times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, when uncertainty, high pressure and time constraints can create tension and anxiety resulting in decision-makers losing their own critical reasoning skills, conforming to the group's thought process and coming to an uncritical consensus.

Research has demonstrated that organisations and decision-making teams investing in diversity are better at solving complex problems and more likely to reach creative solutions. However, diversity on its own is not enough; meaningful inclusion is required: a change in culture which will allow the different perspectives - across genders, ethnicities, generations, cultures and backgrounds - to come forward, will encourage authentic dissent and foster innovation and agility. This is far from reality and all too often, people avoid raising concerns as they are too afraid of conflict and they do not dare to disagree. It requires considerable energy and effort for constructive challenge and minority influence in teams to be actively nurtured. Yet it is an investment worth making. Organisational culture and team leaders should learn to value alternative viewpoints instead of marginalising minority dissenters, labelling them as troublemakers and relegating them to outgroup status. Truly inclusive leadership should lean in with curiosity, patience and empathy, be open to alternative perspectives, know how to think critically and be prepared to change its mind.

Critical thinking is not just an important skill for those leaders in positions of power, authority, and influence. It is also one of the most important characteristics of good followers. According to Barbara Kellerman, “Good followers will actively support a leader who is good (effective and ethical) and will actively oppose a leader who is bad (ineffective and unethical). Good followers invest time and energy in making informed judgments about who their leaders are and what they espouse. Then they take the appropriate action.”[1] Socrates demonstrated that having power and authority does not ensure accurate knowledge, rationality and insight. In such cases, followers’ ability to ask questions to ascertain the true nature of reality beyond the way things appear to be superficially, can be critical.

Socrates maintained that having an interrogative mind is paramount to a life worth living. It has been argued that he sought “wisdom by examining himself and others by means of question and answer, dialectic, which is a non-competitive and mutually beneficial activity, which requires, and helps to create, friendly relationships” and that “goodwill, affection or love . . . makes dialectic possible”.[2] The skill of critical thinking can be taught and as it determines our choices both as leaders and as followers, perhaps we should be investing a lot more time and energy in learning it while creating an environment of trust, humility, openness, and moral courage to allow it to flourish.



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