Three Expert Tips on Pandemic Decision-Making

Like it or not, decision-making during a pandemic is complicated, and easy solutions might turn into long-term headaches. Here's some advice for leaders looking to find a balance.

Association leaders always face difficult decisions, but the ones they’re being asked to make now may be the toughest in a long time. They’re deciding how to make big changes quickly to salvage hard-hit revenue streams from meetings, sponsorships, and member dues. At the same time, they’re considering important operational questions, like whether and when to reopen offices or reduce their workforce through furloughs and layoffs.

Experts in careful decision-making have a few guideposts for leaders to follow as they’re navigating difficult choices brought on by COVID-19.

Agility needs to be balanced with caution. Many leaders are eager to respond on the fly to urgent needs, but acting too quickly can threaten long-term strategic efforts. Decision-making should take into account long-term goals, not just short-term initiatives, write Boris Groysberg and Sarah Abbott of Harvard Business School. “Strategic planning, converting strategic objectives into activities, is central to most organizations,” Groysberg and Abbott write. “Still, it is not possible to anticipate every event that might impact those plans. Executives need to be agile in order to adapt plans in response to unforeseen problems or opportunities. In doing so, they need to balance flexibility and speedy reaction times with long-term strategic focus. It is difficult to get this balance right!”

Now is a bad time for shortcuts. According to leadership strategist Brett Whysel, many people are tending toward the path of least resistance right now, but shortcuts are a bad idea. “In the absence of reliable information, analysis, and leadership, we are left with our gut feelings and decision-making shortcuts,” Whysel wrote recently in Forbes. “Yet, in a novel pandemic, we lack the experience and expertise to form reliable and unbiased intuitions or know which shortcuts work.” He recommends following the advice of trusted sources and being gracious to others doing their best to make hard decisions.

Clear decisions are critical in a pandemic that doesn’t follow common logic. As University of Pennsylvania law and psychology professor Tess Wilkinson-Ryan writes in The Atlantic, the complexity of the problem makes it difficult to resolve. Exploring the human impulse to “shame” other people’s bad decisions, she suggests that mistakes are inevitable when leaders don’t provide clear direction. “Individuals are being asked to decide for themselves what chances they should take, but a century of research on human cognition shows that people are bad at assessing risk in complex situations,” Wilkinson-Ryan writes. “During a disease outbreak, vague guidance and ambivalent behavioral norms will lead to thoroughly flawed thinking.”

The lesson for leaders: Be clear and specific in your decisions and how you communicate them. In the absence of that, the problem gets worse. Consider people’s inconsistent response to social-distancing recommendations.

“Most people congregating in tight spaces are telling themselves a story about why what they are doing is okay. Such stories flourish under confusing or ambivalent norms,” she writes. “People are not irrevocably chaotic decision makers; the level of clarity in human thinking depends on how hard a problem is. I know with certainty whether I’m staying home, but the confidence interval around ‘I am being careful’ is really wide. Concrete guidance makes challenges easier to resolve.”

(AJ_Watt/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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