High Stakes Decision Making

I wrote recently about how the US Special Forces have adopted training in mindfulness to help soldiers make better decisions in chaotic situations… to be able to focus and avoid distraction.  (See “Focus in the midst of chaos- US Special Ops” https://carinasciences.com/2019/07/04/focus-in-the-midst-of-chaos-us-special-ops/ )

This set me thinking about how to help people make better decisions when the stakes are high.

I’m talking about “crisis management”… coping with disaster scenarios… or having make significant calls: stop, go, invest, expand, closedown, buy, sell or hold.

Clearly mindfulness is part of the solution… together with a few other techniques that can help also:

So the first thing: you must be able to focus and to avoid distraction.

You must set aside emotional reactions… and certainly avoid becoming overwhelmed.

And you must set aside thoughts about the “weight” or significance of the current situation… sure, you‘ll need to balance the likelihood and the impacts of success or failure associated with the choices you have…  but this should be approached with  a cool dispassion.

Further, to make the right decisions in the current situation, you should set aside the emotions and reactions from previous situations… good or bad. Every situation is different and you must assess the current issues that you face rather than be influenced by the past.

Mindfulness practice will help you with each of these…. you should try it.

So what else?

In preparation, you should ensure that you are aware of your biases… such as any tendency to take reassurance from “confirmation bias” (that seeks confirm your current understanding but may cause you to ignore evidence that might suggest your understanding may be incorrect) or “cognitive dissonance” (where the presence of evidence that contradicts your understanding causes you to reframe your interpretation of the facts to keep most of your theory intact).

Other biases may cause you to be overly confident in your own ability, or the ability of your team, to carry out necessary tasks.  So you need to talk regularly with colleagues about any biases that you may have (…“sense checking” you opinions).

Build trust… in your systems… indicators… and especially in your colleagues. … in tough times you will need to focus in your task in hand and not start to question things.  Assess the reliability for these regularly… and if you can’t develop that trust then change things now.

And of course you need to trust yourself… all you have to do is achieve this or that; and so focus on doing the things that are required… and visualise moving to a successful outcome.

There are a couple more things that I believe you need to consider:

Don’t feel under pressure to respond.  When something seismic happens, many organisations look to their leader to make the call – so a leader may see it as their role to jump in and act.  But this is not always the best response especially when a situation is unclear or the corollary of any of the available actions is unclear.  A while ago I wrote how mindful leaders in such situations should set aside ego and emotions and reframe the need to act as curiosity – to investigate what is happening and to reach out for the opinions of others. (See “Transformational change – Leadership … and reframing ambiguity as curiosity!” https://carinasciences.com/2018/07/08/transformational-change-leadership-and-reframing-ambiguity-as-curiosity/ )

You’ll need to manage your own behaviour.  Your reactions, your demeanour and your decisions will be noted by your staff and colleagues who may, rightly or wrongly, believe that the true “you” emerges when you are under pressure.  This may have a lasting impact on their opinion of you; on their loyalty to you and on their willingness to go the extra mile for you.  So, try to remain positive and relaxed. .. not irritable or tense.  Empathise with those working hard and let them know you are trying to limit the impact on them. Sometimes, when I have been in such a situations, all I could do was stay with the team and buy the pizzas.  And be generous… the words “please”, “thank you” and “good job” – they’re free and yet so valuable.

Then there’s the “Moral imperative of leadership”. You should act with integrity and ensure that your decisions and actions are moral… even when a situation is desperate. It is unlikely that staff will remain loyal if they believe your actions are not honest and fair.  I once attended to a talk by Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf who was the commander of Desert Storm… the first gulf war.  In that role he was literally asking troops to put their lives on the line.  In such a situation, he said it was essential that the troops were in no doubt that he was doing his best to limit the dangers and that he was taking the best possible care of every one them.  Fortunately most of us do not deal with decisions that can bring life or death… but I am sure the same values are key for all of us.

And finally – don’t choke – easier said than done!  Choking is when a person becomes overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation often causing them to consciously focus on small, trivial actions that have been automated long ago… so that they start to make “novice errors”.  Worse, such emotions can cause the release of brain chemicals that actually reduce your peripheral vision (real and metaphorical) and your ability to notice how the situation is changing.  So simply, set out the steps you have to take and focus on each step, in sequence, one at a time – giving each step your full attention until you have completed all – yet without thinking about weight of the whole situation.

You will get through this.

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