Blog Series-"The Psychological Shift"
Decision-Making in the Wake of Rapid Change
Decision-making can be difficult, even under ideal circumstances where we are operating under normal day-to-day conditions. But what happens when this mental process for making decisions is unexpectedly confronted and influenced by an abnormal phenomenon like a pandemic?
Leaders, alongside the general public, who have relied on their inherent sense for rendering effective decisions under “normal” situations have suddenly been challenged with the uncertainty of current conditions promoted by a pandemic disease that began in early 2020. As example, over the course of almost two years, businesses have had to change the way they operationalize and conduct their day-to-day activities in tandem with the collective behaviors of the general public and industry imperatives initiated to help control the spread of COVID-19. During these trying times, people have contended with an array of overwhelming decisions and struggles such as: whether or not to resume their jobs, relocate to another state or country, find alternative living arrangements, and more. This, alongside some deeper introspective material like: the continuance of relationships, risks and safety measures for the protection of family and personal security, as well as dealing with other unknown variables brought on by the pandemic.
In this, the last of the four-part blog series, we examine where decision-making has been challenged and what we are learning from current emerging trends.
A world of decisions
Life normally presents us with a variety of decisions: what to wear, what to eat, what to take care of, what job to apply for, and more. Now add to that some real-time issues from our current environment that compound our world of daily decisions with questions that arise such as: what mask to wear for protection; what places to go that are safe; is travel still safe by plane, bus, train; and do I still even want my current job anymore? These are just a few of the questions and challenges brought on by the pandemic that I have also encountered from clients who have come to me for therapy since its onset.
As 2021 continues, so does the COVID-19 virus with its variants. However, we are in some ways at a different vantage now that there are vaccines developed and available for use. The potential to positively decrease the number of cases through vaccination has also been demonstrated through rigorous testing. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Effectiveness of Covid-19 Vaccines In Preventing Hospitalization Among Adults Aged ≥ 65 Years-Covid-Net, 13 States, February-April 2021 (2021), the report states:
“In an analysis of 7,280 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19–associated cases among hospitalized adults aged ≥65 years, all three COVID-19 vaccine products currently authorized for use in the United States had high effectiveness in preventing laboratory-confirmed COVID-19–associated hospitalizations” (para. 7).
But even the advantage of modern medicine, there are still issues that abound, particularly with the unvaccinated and children with the delta variant. The latest statistics, in fact, depict an astounding number of COVID-19 cases, numbering in the millions, and sadly, a death toll that has impacted many. And with that comes decisions that push leaders and people to consider a variety of compelling matters.
What to decide?
A number of factors often render the decisions we make. University of Alabama Assistant Professor, Joshua Dobias posits that decisions are dependent on a variety of factors from things like age, to life experiences, and even perceptions and that the frontal lobe-responsible for decision-making-is not even fully developed until our 20s” (Hoge, 2021). Perhaps this may account for some of the decisions, or even lack of “healthy” decisions, optioned by some young adults during the pandemic, where vaccinations waned or where crowd-inflation became over-riding issues.
The frontal lobe, for the most part, is that area of the brain responsible for “executive” functions like logic, execution of goals, and planning out tasks. It also prominently figures into how we render decisions – but in this process, decisions are also weighed against other valuable elements like experience, knowledge, and memory. In fact, the function of perception by itself may also play a larger role in the task of making decisions, especially when weighed against environmental risks.
Risk perception, according to Science Digest, regards how individual’s think and feel about the risks that cross their path, and is an important “defining determinant” of defensive behavior (Renner et al., 2015, p.702). How this effects a person’s reaction to something like a pandemic is important. As an example to help illustrate this point, but on a much smaller scale, we can look back to 2009 and the A/H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak, where notably, the public’s perception ultimately may have effected their response to the event (Renner et al., 2015). This particular incident revealed in hindsight, the compelling gravity of “risk perception” as applied to the success or failure of a public health intervention like vaccination. Ultimately in this case, the public’s collective perception was not favorable towards vaccination, largely due to each individual’s sense of risk perception and any inherent negative perceptions such as suspicions, fears, or other internalized experiences they held internally about receiving a vaccine.
During a crisis phenomenon like a pandemic, people largely rely on their own feelings of the innate risks involved in any decision that comes their way, and under such extreme circumstance, emotional- reasoning may predominate over effective decision-making, where “primal” fear (a basic instinct for survival) takes the wheel, driving us to make decisions that are not always productive.
Leadership, discrepant circumstance, and decision-making capacities during trying times
Good leaders rely on sound practices for rendering good decisions. But even the best leaders can be confronted with discrepant circumstance that challenges their experience. According to McKinsely & Company:
“Leaders know that making good, fast decisions is challenging under the best of circumstances. But the trickiest are those we call “big bets”—unfamiliar, high-stakes decisions. When you have a crisis of uncertainty such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived at overwhelming speed and enormous scale, organizations face a possibly paralyzing volume of these big-bet decisions” (Alexander et al., 2020, para. 2).
Environments that are dealing with unknown variables, that are defined by urgency, become boiling pots for leaders, and employees of those leaders, as they hopefully attempt to make sound decisions that are in everyone’s best interest.
Helping align the “right” potentials in a pandemic
Here are a few ways leaders can help circumvent the negative effects of situations that involve large scale crises, and possibly avoid or reduce the probability of larger-scale impact to their organization and their respective human capital.
#1-Overriding the (ANS) Autonomic Nervous System and learning to "calm in the storm"
There are countless stories of leaders who have had to deal with compelling circumstances and engaged them in the best conceivable “proactive” ways. Examples like Adam Silver’s (Commissioner for the NBA) decision, in reaction to the virus, of suspending the NBA basketball league for a season, or New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, who announced on television a four-level COVID-19 alert-plan for helping mitigate the spread of the virus. These leaders remained calm and collected in the emergent face of an unknown variable.
Remaining calm allows us to stay focused so that we can operate without emotional-reasoning taking over. Emotional-reasoning is based solely on our emotional state and can contaminate good decision-making during a crisis. Another step in this process requires that we disarm “reactive” behavioral responses steeped in fear, thus calling into action our “fight or flight” responses. This means moving from our limbic system where emotion is processed to our executive “front-brain” rationale. Opportunities to do this require gaining some momentary cognitive distance (cognitive diffusion) to break the emotional connection, thus stopping the alert to our body’s autonomic response system.
Breaching the emotional response can be achieved as well by distracting, moving to problem-solving, relying on other people for wise counsel, or developing a plan of action, and mitigation rationale.
#2-Dealing with ambiguous threat-acting with a guided-impulse for crisis mitigation
Scholars of business management refer to this idea of “ambiguous threat” when leaders are dealing with the “unknown” possibilities of severe and complex situations (Kerisseyy et al., 2020).
One of the issues witnessed throughout events in the past, according to an article from Harvard Business review and authors Kerisseyy et al. (2020), regards the negative outcomes of engaging what they call downplay and delay tendencies, which they believe are fraught with historically bad conclusions. This “downplay and delay” decision-making action was evident in some decisions rendered by leaders during the pandemic as well.
What feeds the downplay and delay behavior process is waiting for more information before making a decision in a crisis situation, sometimes where minutes count. This human tendency for “knowing” before acting can be hard for leaders to challenge and balance when a comprehensive picture is not complete. Waiting out a crisis situation for a better idea to come along is also another dangerous precept and prospect for leaders, and even the public, to engage. The leap for leaders to act with urgency, tempered with critical evaluation based on the information they do have, can save lives and the future health of their organizations during crisis situations.
#3-The Imperative of transparency and clear communication
Anytime a person is served a set of severe circumstances, the “psychological shift” of decision-making is enacted. The functions of that process are largely determined by one’s willingness to face the threats confronting them accurately. Learning to provide “honest” communication is an important part of helping people deal with unknown threats. Holding back information that may help unburden anxiety can undermine a leader quickly. As well, such communication builds advocacy and trust. In an article from the Center for Creative Leadership entitled Why Communication Is So Important for Leaders (2020), the following are ways every leader can enhance their communication during crisis events, which include:
- Learning to communicate relentlessly – more is always better and people feel more secure when they are kept in the fold.
- Simplifying and being direct – people can process more effectively this way without mis-reading communication and motivations.
- Listening while encouraging input – by doing so leaders create a “collaboratively directed” potential and an opportunity for “enlarged” engagement.
- Illustrating and shaping the event with good narrative – using examples of past events that met with success can produce hope for the future.
- Affirming with action-oriented responses – the “right” behaviors in the face of extremes is important, and leaders must always remember people are watching.
#4-Don’t run from suffering, use it to nurture "meaning"
Leaders should always “anchor” to the big picture of a crisis situation, but should not misrepresent a crisis in terms of “statistics” alone. Good leaders learn to also communicate and feel the pain of others. We are a meaning-making species that relies on the support of one another – especially in times of crisis – and leaders should not be removed from the “feeling” aspect of it either. In fact, leading with ‘empathy” can help leaders connect to people, see their “human-ness” and engender greater trust (Kerisseyy et al., 2020). One of the powerful slogans that has come from the pandemic is “We are all in this together.” The bigger picture here is that we belong to the human race despite our differences, and that collectively we can also make a difference.
In all of the four blogs in the “Psychological Shift” series the possibilities of what we can do even in the face of extreme gravitas circumstances like a pandemic can bring about a greater sense of control, of confidence and motivation to continue the fight to thrive, even when it may feel like options are limiting. It is in such times that we begin to understand that there are always options.
1. Effectiveness Of Covid-19 Vaccines In Preventing Hospitalization Among Adults Aged ≥ 65 Years - Covid-Net, 13 States, February-April 2021(2021). https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7032e3.htm
2. Hoge, B. (2021). Decision-making during a pandemic. https://www.uab.edu/news/youcanuse/item/11828-decision-making-during-a-pandemic
3. Renner, B., Gamp, M., Schmälzle, R., Schupp, H., (2015). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed.). Elsevier.
4. Alexander, A., De Smet, A., & Weiss, L. (2020, March). Decision making in uncertain times. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/decision-making-in-uncertain-times
5. Kerisseyy, M., & Edmondson, A. (2020, April). What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic . Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic
6. Why Communication Is So Important for Leaders. (2020, November). Center for Creative Leadership. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/communication-1-idea-3-facts-5-tips/