Critical thinking in critical situations

Survival of the fittest has always considered intelligence to be an evolutionary advantage amongst humans. In more recent times, studies have shown that critical thinking skills can be more predictive of positive outcomes than raw intelligence. In a growing global marketplace of multi-culture companies and corporates, can critical thinking skills operate as a common denominator for cutting across global cultures to yield positive results? We know that cultural differences can exist between companies, but they can also exist within companies. Simply think of a supply chain that has its sites/factories across multiple countries and, cultures. So, what is so special about critical thinking, and how can we leverage it to communicate across cultures in a crisis?

Critical thinking

The value in critical thinking is that it challenges assumptions, generalisations and it is not confined to a single country or place. Assumptions can be blinding, and generalisations can over-simplify complexity. In contrast, there’s a level of consciousness that comes with using critical thinking skills. New-wave critical thinking suggests that we move beyond tactical fear-based responses and towards more long-game and evolved approaches: for example, ethical strategy. That we move from the traditional competitive advantage to collaborative advantage. It is trite to say we are currently operating in a predominantly VUCA* environment. Predicting and controlling for organisations, behaviours and systems in this VUCA environment requires nuanced methods. For example, systems theory (or systems thinking) encourages us to position ourselves within the system, consider our spheres of influence, and actually engage with complexity. Critical thinking encourages us to buck gross generalisations (e.g. there’s only value in technical and linear problem solving) and apply better thinking (including asking better questions). Essentially, critical thinking is a skill that elevates enquiry (discovery) and decision-making (evaluative) practices.

Understanding the Australian business mindset

Thinking within developed and developing markets is riddled with systematic errors due to biases, prejudices and presumptions that are inbuilt in the system of free enterprise. Critical thinking attempts to mitigate – or at least unearth – these “thinking errors” across varied topics. To make it clear, each of these errors is a mental fault in its own right, as below:

  • Bias: a mental leaning or inclination, that is slightly bent, or deviating from a norm.
  • Prejudice: a preconceived idea that implies a judgment or opinion before the facts are known.
  • Presumption: an unjustifiable acceptance of the truth of a matter, usually on the basis of improper evidence.

Thinking which invokes these errors, for example, larger corporations are more productive than smaller ones (presumption); profits of one corporation are the losses of its competitor (the win-lose prejudice); or immediate profitability is the necessary condition for growth (bias), can cloud judgment when it comes to accurately detecting, averting and pre-empting future crises.

Profit and productivity are just two examples of the ‘infection’ of these thinking errors; the same can be said for business imperatives about scale and control, and rights and responsibilities. But how does this translate across cultures?

Chinese examples

There are marked and evidence-based differences between Australian and Chinese business cultures. Australians have low power distance in a leadership context, while the Chinese have high power distance in the same context. Australians are more confrontational in approaching disagreement, while the research tells us that the Chinese are more avoidant. One thing is for sure; differences in business culture will be constant.

There are also substantial differences in their marketplaces. China has unique considerations given its social media, consumer personas, and government regulation. It is not guaranteed that the status quo in Australia – for example, around social media presence and crisis communications capacity – can be transplanted to China.

When an organisational crisis is identified in a cross-cultural business engagement, how can you find a common language? And common meaning? Relying on stepped critical thinking is one approach, and empathy will be another core skill here. How can you put yourself in another culture’s “business shoes”? This fused approach (i.e. critical thinking x empathy) allows for evaluation without judgement. Determine what features of the environment (business, regulatory and/or social media) would be likely to influence strategic success in one country: but potentially not in another.

Case studies from Chinese crises management highlight the importance of speed of response. With the advent of technology, and rapid-fire news cycles, time is of the essence in diffusing (potential) crises. In recent times, industry-based “reaction plans” have become more common-place in China. These roadmaps for anticipating various crisis scenarios acknowledge the importance of responding rather than reacting and being proactive rather than reactive. With the growing maturity of Chinese crisis management solutions, and speed at which assumptions are becoming outdated, critical thinking becomes a skill which can swiftly cross borders. 

If we are in an age where our mindset is insight-seeking, and our skillset is critical-thinking, then crisis management would be an opportune toolkit to steward organisations through ethically charged times. To be further informed, and understand how your organisation can start to consider crisis management across cultures, contact Gavin Freeman or Craig Goldberg at the Business Olympian Group: or

Written by Emily Knowles and Sebastian Amor-Smith

*VUCA: Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous