A template for crisis decision-making

By Bruce T. Blythe, Chairman Crisis Management International, Crisis Care Network, Behavioral Medical Interventions

The title of this article catches your attention and you decide to read through it for take-and-use pointers.  But imagine as you settle in, you get a frantic phone call.  There has been an incident related to your workplace with people killed and questions are emerging about you being part of the blame.   Couldn’t be?  Wrong, it really has happened.  Suddenly, everything on your To-Do-List for the day has changed.

The velocity of questions and information is coming at you rapidly.  Your mind seems to be racing and numb at the same time; it seems unreal.  The consequences are high.  Reputation is at stake.  You can feel the stress running through your veins.  Timely response is mandated.  In the midst of it all, you must make high-stakes decisions to protect the well-being of people, the organisation . . . and yourself.

Crisis decision-making is different than choices of everyday living.  Experience tells us that, “Crises magnify the significance of small weaknesses.”  Analysis paralysis, poor listening, dishonesty when confronted, avoidance during conflict, over-confidence, impulsive decisions, autocratic style, or submissive acquiescence; any of these common stress-related predispositions and more can become exacerbated during crisis decision-making and personal response.

So, in these unexpected times of upheaval, how can you make good decisions?  Is there a template, algorithm, or mental pattern you can follow to make cogent decisions during crises, whether the fact pattern and blame is pointed toward you, or not?

There are many “tricks of the trade” for making good decisions during the heat of the battle.

Write it out:  Research has repeatedly demonstrated that especially during stressful times, writing increases cognitive clarity, judgment, and timeliness of decisions.  There are no hard and fast rules about what to write during your crisis or problematic situation, but it helps to focus your concentration and problem solving.  Try it during non-crisis times to experience the effectiveness of this simple decision-making technique.

SIP-DE:  Training programs for motorcycle drivers, where defensive driving is paramount, many times will use the SIP-DE model for addressing potentially critical situations on the road.  The same concepts can readily apply to crisis decision-making and can serve as a template for writing out crisis problem solving, as discussed above. The SIP-DE acronym stands for the following:

Scan the environment while driving your real or metaphorical motorcycle.  In crisis management, this involves getting good information (the fact pattern) and verifying what circumstances and timing will readily allow.

Identify problem areas.  Crisis managers will want to identify obvious problem areas, but it may also involve identifying the crisis beyond the obvious.  While an explosion or business disruption might be the obvious situation, a threat to reputation, key relationships, or shareholder value may be the critical issue to address.

Predict what could go wrong.  For the motorcycle driver, it might be a car ahead pulling out in front of the bike’s pathway.   In crisis management, you can often anticipate the next moves of impacted stakeholders or the crisis fact pattern by imagining what you would do if you were in their position or if prerequisites are pointing the probabilities in certain directions.

Decide what to do.  On a motorcycle, you don’t have time to pontificate the various options.  It’s better for our biker to decide on defensive actions based on anticipation, rather than wait until the car pulls into the bike’s pathway.  Likewise, timeliness in crisis decision-making is a critical ingredient.  It is most often better to anticipate and decide what to do with only partial information than to wait for additional information and be too late.

Execute your plan.  Good crisis response certainly includes responding to what has happened.  It also involves staying ahead of the fact pattern, when possible, by preparing and implementing decisive actions before they become critical.  Ultimately, it’s what you do during crisis response that makes the difference.  Research tells us actions that demonstrate “caring” are essential.  So, make sure every executed action is filtered through a template of corporate and personal caring during crisis response.  Finally, a critical component of crisis execution is to effectively communicate your plan with front-line managers and impacted stakeholders so they can make appropriate decisions.

CIA Approach:  Tactical responses during crisis management are many times obvious, such as life safety, search and rescue, and addressing whatever is the obvious content of the crisis, e.g., putting out the fire.  But, what about the important strategic decisions during crisis response?  There are three key components to consider when making strategic crisis decisions, remembered through the acronym CIA.

Core Assets:  If the crisis is of significant proportion, core assets of the organisation can be threatened.  Core assets include people, reputation, brand, trust, finances, shareholder value, ability to operate, intellectual and physical property and key relationships.  A focus on protecting threatened core assets can serve as a beacon for crisis decision-making.  This focus on serving a higher-purpose and protecting the greater good of the organisation (vs. self-interests) is a common denominator among effective crisis decision-makers.

Impacted stakeholders:  People who are harmed (or perceive potential harm) by your crisis have strong and predictable questions and expectations.  They want to know what you knew prior to the incident, when you knew it, and what you did about it.  They expect that you did everything humanly possible to prevent the crisis situation from occurring.  They expect that you and your organisation are prepared to respond effectively to the crisis once it occurred.  Stakeholders can include your employees and their families, customers, media (traditional and social), regulators, plaintiff attorneys, institutional investors, board members, suppliers and distributors, competitors and more.   An effective approach to addressing stakeholder issues and concerns is to ask yourself, “What would I want if I were in their position?”  Not attending to the needs and concerns of impacted stakeholders will increase the likelihood for “outrage”, which will increase the complexity, longevity and severity of your crisis.

Anticipation:  Certainly, crisis management involves responding to issues that have already occurred.  Good crisis management also involves staying ahead of the expected sequence of events. By anticipating the potential direction of the crisis progression and stakeholder concerns and actions, you can make better crisis decisions on a timely basis.  Crisis anticipation includes considering and predicting the impacts (intended and unintended) of crisis actions or inactions.

5 Guiding Principles:  Crisis response involves decision-making during times of ambiguity and partial knowledge that can easily take you “off course.”  Effective crisis decision-making is more than following a crisis checklist.  It is best grounded in principles that serve as “side-boards” for ethical, legal and compassionate management of the crisis.  Effective crisis decision-making is more about who you are (good character) than what you know (technical knowledge).  The newspapers are filled with self-defeating decisions leaders and others have made, even though they knew better.  The following is a sample of crisis response guiding principles that will help keep your crisis decision-making “between the guardrails” and effectively focused:

  1. Well-being of people first, with caring and compassion
  2. Assume appropriate responsibility
  3. Address needs of all stakeholders in a timely manner
  4. All decisions and actions based on honesty, ethical and legal guidelines
  5. Available, visible and candid communication with all impacted stakeholders

Summary Crisis Decision-Making Guidelines:  With the above templates to use for decision-making during crises, research and experience in the crisis decision-making discipline has provided some final guidelines to help you be effective during high-consequence, unexpected situations.

Vetting:  Crisis decision-making is most effective when crisis response considerations are discussed among a small group of appropriate colleagues.  Research shows that the larger the group, the slower and less effective the decision-making becomes.   It is best if there is a loosely associated, but knowledgeable, “outside voice” (crisis consultant, trusted peer from another organisation, etc.) included in the group for an objective perspective.  Additionally, it is good to have at least one person with an opposing viewpoint to challenge your decisions.  An incestuous inner-circle of “yes men and women” can create an environment where important vantages are missed.

Impacted Stakeholders:  If possible, it is best to include input from persons who will be affected by the decisions you are about to make.  This reality test will help to prevent unintended consequences and increase the quality of your crisis decisions and actions.

Preparedness:  Two ingredients that cause poor decision-making during crises are (1) a lack of preparedness, and (2) high stress, especially when coupled together.  Research with fire-fighters, pilots, military combat officers, emergency medical technicians, law enforcement, and corporate managers has repeatedly demonstrated that those who have planned and rehearsed (i.e., prepared) are much more effective during highly stressful crisis situations than those who are unprepared.  There is simply no substitute for preparedness.  After the crisis hits is not the time to start thinking about crisis response.  Multiple studies have demonstrated that impromptu crisis decision-making results in longer response and recovery time, poorer decisions, and more costly damage, whether it’s a personal crisis or related to the workplace.  Much like learning to ride a bicycle, it takes the energy and repeated practice to establish the pathways in your brain that will engrain the desired skill.  Learning theorists tell us that it takes approximately six (6) successful trials in order to become proficient with a new skill like riding a bike or being an effective crisis decision-maker in the midst of an unexpected, high-consequence incident.  Hopefully, the information herein will serve as a template and impetus for overtly preparing yourself for skilled crisis decision-making in the heat of the battle.  At some point in the future, your next crisis will hit.  Will you be prepared?