Decision making is hard in any context – never more difficult than during a crisis, when stress impairs decision making most severely. Crisis teams and their leaders understand this all too well.
But do they know there’s a whole class of stressors that cause ineffective crisis decisions? Those barriers to rational decision making are called decision derailers. And you can’t overcome them without knowing what they are.
Introduced by experts in business resilience and continuity, Guy Higgins and Jennifer Freedman, decision derailers are barriers to rational decision making, in other words behaviors that get in the way of effective decision making. Simple enough, right?
Well, not so much, as it turns out. Decision derailers are felt acutely in practice. What’s more, a crisis team’s decision-making strengths often can’t compensate for the cumulative effects of derailing behaviors. That’s why it’s particularly important for crisis practitioners to fully understand decision derailers and adopt appropriate mitigation strategies. So, here are the main decision derailing groupings:
- Altered perspectives (Examples: Framing, compelling stories, recent events). In this scenario, decision makers have had their frames of reference altered by a compelling story or a recent event, neither of which is actually relevant to the crisis at hand. Yet still, the crisis leader will let the erroneous perspective inform the crisis decision taken.
- Organizational speed bumps (Examples: Excessive optimism, overconfidence, frequently). Often, crisis teams cut off consideration of all possible alternatives prematurely. Why? They feel excessively optimistic or overconfident in the approach they’ve taken. The downsides of this bias are stark, though. Teams don’t recognize their limitations and make faulty decisions based on fallacious premises.
- Appeal to authority (Examples: Sunflower reflex, champion bias). In crisis, teams tend to defer to the opinions of senior leaders. But those superiors aren’t always physically present. In that case, teams make decisions they think mirror decisions their superiors would have made (the sunflower reflex).
Similarly, teams often defer to individual practitioners (in their midst) who have superior experience. This is another derailing behavior, especially when teams uncritically and unquestioningly privilege the decision of someone who’s been there before (the champion bias).
- Resistance (Examples: Escalating commitment, anchoring, loss aversion). During a crisis, teams often get fixed on a set course of action, refusing to deviate, even when the situation demands flexibility and recalibration. In fact, teams, then, might even double down, or escalate their commitment, throwing more resources at a certain course of action. This derailer is similar to the sunk cost fallacy. The inverse, known as anchoring, is likewise problematic: prematurely committing to a set course based on the first piece of information gathered or the first decision taken.
- Informational pathologies (Examples: Confirmation and information bias, WYSIATI, failure to communicate). During crises, decision makers often have to base judgments on information that is unclear, faulty, and/or incomplete. Those informational lapses only exacerbate another all-too-human tendency to accept information that conforms to preexisting notions.
Along those lines, decision makers also limit sources of information just to people in the room. Interestingly, the opposite behavior, seeking out myriad sources so as to avoid having to make a final decision, is also a derailing behavior. Additionally, individual crisis practitioners often gather highly valuable information, but they don’t necessarily communicate those findings with relevant stakeholders, especially when those practitioners don’t feel empowered to do so, or when their findings contradict a prevailing consensus.
What, then, are some helpful strategies to mitigate the effects of these corrosive derailers? For one, effective crisis decision making must be grounded in the best available evidence, especially to prevent informational pathologies. Often, though, crisis management tools don’t facilitate the smooth flow of information from multiple sources and practitioners.
Leading integrated crisis management software, on the other hand, will help teams manage incident response tasks, log and share updates, decisions, facts, and assumptions, as well as produce situation reports and briefings. That’s not all: advanced tools will let corporate crisis and business continuity management teams easily collaborate amongst themselves via chat rooms dedicated to specific events. Keen to learn how else you can ensure rational decisions get made when it matters most? Download our Definitive Guide to Effective Crisis Decision Making.