Crisis Decision Making: How wicked pressures create decision avoidance

By Claudia van den Heuvel

Strategic level decision makers often assume they will be able to manage a crisis well, purely because they make “difficult and risky decisions” every day. In theory, crisis decision-making should follow the standard decision process of: assess the situation, formulate various options or strategies and implement a choice. Often however, this doesn’t happen.

In reality, crisis teams subject to immense, unique and “wicked” pressures; the levels of uncertainty, lack of information, dynamic changes, time bound activities, and, above all expectations of accountability, are often so high as to be unprecedented.

Decision avoidance

One pervasive trap that we often see strategic crisis management teams fall into as a result of these pressures, is decision avoidance. This happens because the teams have to make extremely difficult, yet important decisions based on very little or incomplete information, and of which the consequences of different courses of action are either unknown or equally unattractive. However, due to the inherent time pressure of any fast-moving crisis, the choice must be made; and once it is made, there is rarely an opportunity to go back.

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The consequences these decisions have on the way in which the crisis develops is potentially enormous, and therefore so are the pressures experienced. This is especially true if the decision turns out (with the great benefit of hindsight!) to have been the wrong (or “less right” choice). So enormous in fact, that the default stakeholder response to having made an alleged wrong decision is often demands for the CEO’s resignation.

It’s not a huge surprise then, that these psychological pressures lead strategic decision makers to avoid having to make the decision altogether. Assuming responsibility for inaction – an event that never happened, is perceived as less damaging than assuming responsibility for a wrong decision that ends up going horribly (or even slightly) wrong. Decision makers therefore either delay the choice until it is too late to address the issue satisfactorily, or talk around the subject and formulate various options and strategies, without ever committing to a course of action.

An example of the former in which decision delay occurred, was the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police at Stockwell Underground station in London on July 22, 2005 – de Menezes was mistaken for a fugitive involved in a failed bomb attempt. Whilst ultimately, Cressida Dick, Gold Commander of the operation on the day, made a decision (and did so on the basis of the information known to her at the time), the situation was one where delay at earlier stages of the operation allowed for the situation to escalate so severely in threat terms, that she was forced to make a wicked choice – “shoot to kill the suspect, or don’t”. Originally, the instructions from Gold Command were to “prevent Menezes from boarding a train”. Had the decision to arrest or apprehend the witness been made earlier (while he was being pursued on a bus to the station, or while surveillance officers were sat next to the suspect on the train), Commander Dick would not have had to face such an extreme decision.

Avoiding the avoidance trap

So how can strategic decision makers get to grips with the pressures experienced in a crisis and avoid the decision avoidance trap? The optimal way for achieving this is through exposure to simulated crisis environments, where the pressures experienced in a real crisis are recreated, and where the CMT becomes familiarized with how the consequences of their decisions (or lack thereof) impact the scenario and dictate the trajectory of their response. If executed properly in an open learning environment, exposure to these pressures will serve to build the CMT’s expertise and illustrate to them that crisis decisions are not just high risk “business as usual” decisions.

Read more about the tripwires and trampolines of crisis decision making here

About ClaudiavdHeuvel

Steelhenge Project Manager and co-author of Steelhenge's thought leadership series. With a PhD in crisis response, my specialist subjects include leadership, decision-making, exercises and terror attacks.

One thought on “Crisis Decision Making: How wicked pressures create decision avoidance

  1. Reblogged this on Crisis Averted – Student Discussions on PR and commented:
    Interesting observation which I believe supports the practice of “sooner rather than later”. In examining case studies such as the Tylenol Crisis, the Nestle (Palm Oil situation) , and even the response to the Royal Family after Princess Diana’s death, decisions tend to need to be made quickly so a public or internal response can be released. The pressure felt during these circumstances can cause flip flopping and indecisiveness with executives leading to either no response or rash actions which appear false. By working in tandem with your companies communications or risk management teams decisions become more of a group responsibility, alleviating stress and pressure. The experiences and reactions of many individuals could be better suited to the situation and plan of action. Furthermore it is in these experiences that companies can learn and evaluate for future need. In reviewing the actions of our peers, competitors or even our past, companies can learn valuable information which when applied can elevate the pressure on the next crisis.

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