Critical Thinking in the age of Fake News – how can it support our mental health.


October 9th, 2019

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Mental health has always been at the heart of what we do here at Roffey Park. Our original purpose was to support health and well-being in the working population after the trauma of the second world war. Mental health is still something that we are challenged with in the workplace, but also within society more widely. It seems, in part, that anxiety is becoming more prevalent, or at least talked about, as uncertainty, volatility and the ability to promulgate or denounce almost anything as fake news increases. The tenor of political discourse has become based on fear and anger with claim and counter claim levelled at seemingly irreconcilable foes. Social media, for all its benefits also has an unhelpful habit of being an unfiltered outlet for people’s angers and fears expressed often as a rather disempowered blame game, or an equally binary ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ shouting match.

With that as a climate which surrounds us on a daily basis, no wonder mental health issues are becoming more visible. With so much uncertainty, with so little trust in what may or may not be taken as real or true, there appears to be very little solid ground on which to stand. But there is an opportunity here. Not to create your own tiny island of ‘my truth’, ‘my reality’, or to hang on to old notions of there being one, universal truth or reality. Instead, the opportunity is to learn the habits of critical thinking to navigate the multiple realities and truths out there. To learn the habits of critical reflection so that we can be more discerning about what might be driving our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and so able to generate a more robust sense of our contribution to the situations we encounter.

So, what is critical thinking and how can it support our mental health?

Critical thinking is about being able to examine situations from different perspectives; question things such as assumptions or cultural bias; evaluate sources of information and; see patterns and contradictions in order to come to well-reasoned conclusions. So instead of being buffeted by a swirl of different opinions, all making claims to truth, someone with well-honed critical thinking skills can be more discerning and clearer in their own thinking. When all around seems confusing, even contradictory, the application of those skills helps to reduce the mental clutter and the sense of anxiety that often accompanies the complexity of modern workplaces.

I will share an example of how those skills can be developed. When I was working with a group of senior leaders and managers to help them complete a post graduate certificate in leadership and management, I would be driving them to distraction in the first few months, asking them to be critical of everything they were reading. “How long ago was that written? What was the likely state of knowledge at the time? What might someone from a different background say about the same data? What assumptions is the author making? Is it an opinion piece or peer reviewed?” The response I usually got was “But it says what I want it to say. It backs up my argument!” However, after a little while, what started to come back was that, now they could spot assumptions and see different perspectives, not just in what they were reading, but in their day to day conversations. It was as if a veil had been lifted, and they could see in a different way. There was a greater degree of calmness that came along with the ability to see differently.

Critical thinking teamed with Critical Reflection.

The skills of critical reflection are not dissimilar but tend to be more directed towards our own beliefs, assumptions, drives and perspectives. This is particularly helpful when we want to learn from our own experiences, making sense of what might be challenging for us. Please note, this not the same as being self-critical, which can be detrimental to our mental health if inappropriate. Critical reflection is helpful as it allows us to be curious, to scratch below the surface of our own habits of mind, and to shine a light on what might have been sub-consciously driving our thoughts and behaviours. One of the most common things that fit into this category for leaders, especially those who are making a shift between operational and strategic leadership, is the belief that their self-esteem is conditional on their technical expertise.

An example of this might, which be a leader who gets anxious at the thought of delegating more to their team to free up time to be more strategic. The logical, reasonable part of them knows that is the right thing to do, and yet they avoid doing so by coming up with lots of different reasons why now isn’t a good time, the team is already stretched etc. This can lead to all sorts of stress, anxiety and self-criticism. With some careful critical reflection, and possibly a good coach, a leader can recognise the assumptions they are making: perhaps they assume that they might not be good at being more strategic; or that their team will feel put upon, or an number of unexamined beliefs that get in the way of them doing something different. Self-reflection isn’t the antidote to these beliefs and the potential anxiety that they can create, but awareness is the first step in making different choices.

Both critical thinking and critical reflection are essential skills for leaders in these turbulent times, and they are hallmarks of the way we work at Roffey Park.

Find out more:

Clear Leadership is a collaborative leadership programme which is based on the globally renowned work of Dr Gervase Bushe, providing a powerful set of skills that empowers leaders to think and behave collaboratively.

Personal Effectiveness and Power, Leaders and managers need to draw from a range of techniques and approaches to influence people in a positive, collaborative, team-focussed way. That way, the job gets done and everyone stays on board.