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  • Marnie Suss

6 ways a crisis impacts decision-making

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Most people make 70 -100 conscious decisions daily, ranging from the mundane to more significant ones that shape our personal and professional lives. However, when faced with a crisis, decision making takes on a whole new level of complexity.


Crisis decision making is a unique process that demands adaptability, quick thinking, and the ability to navigate through uncertain and rapidly changing circumstances.


To understand the qualities of a strong crisis leader, we have to go back to the beginning.


What is a crisis and what makes it unique?


defining a crisis.


Crises can arise from a variety of sources, ranging from chronic issues to sudden, unexpected events. They often manifest as situations that demand immediate attention and have the potential to cause widespread harm or disruption.


There are also six (6) prominent ways a crisis impacts decision-making. Many of them are common in our day-to-day work, but when combined, they create the perfect storm of conditions for crisis decision making.


crisis conditions.


novelty. A defining characteristic of a crisis lies in its novelty, as each crisis presents its own distinct challenges, even if there are similarities with past events. Crises are rarely predictable, often emerging from unforeseen circumstances. Decision makers are confronted with familiar challenges, but different circumstances.


This poses an internal dilemma - to make decisions more heavily influenced by experience or by the present unknown circumstances?


fast-paced: When I see a “fast-paced” environment listed on a job description or as a company mantra I often wonder what is their definition of fast. Fast-paced in a crisis is when the changing information or situation is so rapid the human brain's capacity for rational and logical processing is exceeded.


This condition can create decision paralysis or impaired decisions.


intense pressure: In a crisis, individuals in leadership or decision-making roles experience heightened levels of pressure. This pressure stems from a multitude of sources, including political, financial, reputational, and public trust considerations. The weight of responsibility and accountability in a crisis amplifies the intensity of decision-making scenarios.


Intense pressure coupled with the sense of personal responsibility can create a volatile environment for decision makers. Bias and fear can permeate the decision making process resulting in reckless decisions.


intense scrutiny: While the average person makes maybe a dozen important decisions daily, most people are not criticized for those decisions. Crisis decision makers, on the other hand, face an unprecedented level of scrutiny every day. Each decision made during a crisis is subject to internal and external scrutiny, particularly by our friends in the press.


This intensified examination requires well-thought-out and defensible choices, as they may have far-reaching consequences for individuals, organizations, and communities.


wide impacts: Crises often have cascading effects that extend beyond the immediate circumstances. Comparable to the "butterfly effect," a seemingly insignificant action can have profound and unforeseen repercussions during a crisis.


Decision makers must consider the potential ripple effects of their choices, making it crucial to adopt a holistic perspective and anticipate various interdependencies.


high uncertainty: Uncertainty is inherent in crisis situations, resembling a dark tunnel with an unknown end-point. Unlike day-to-day decision making, which benefits from foresight, crises frequently lack the luxury of information.


Decision makers are forced to make critical choices amidst ambiguity, relying on their judgment, experience, and ability to assess emerging patterns.


So what can we do to balance these known and sometimes negative influences?


In a summer series, I will explore each of these conditions in depth, the common pitfalls associated with them, and how I’ve seen them play out in real crises.


I’ll also explore the leadership qualities that can provide balance to these ever present and persistent conditions, and how we can make them work in our favor.



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