May 22, 2020

Safe Decision Dilemmas and COVID-19

Most of the time leaders make decisions easily and quickly. The situation presents itself and I know what to do. Or I take action more or less automatically, without thinking much about it. But important, sometimes pivotal decisions also present themselves with uncertainty. COVID-19 has given us plenty of these.

Is Mary the best person for the job or John? Under budget pressure should we defer maintenance or bite the bullet? Are the COVID-19 protocols we’ve developed as we return to the workplace sufficient in themselves and will they be followed? What data should we monitor to know if employees are adequately protected? It happens frequently, to all leaders, decisions have to be made when information and potential outcomes are uncertain. The enlightened leader knows she is subject to massive biases, so she resists the impulse to fast reaction and instead exerts mental and emotional energy to come up with a good call. 

Sometimes it’s easy: gather the right data and people, study and discuss, and the decision outcome becomes clear. But other times we get stuck, maybe in analysis-paralysis, or conceptual confusion, or maybe we see a situation where it looks like there just is no call we can make that is a satisfactory response to the situation.  

The Land of Safe Decision Dilemmas

This is the land of The Decision Dilemma, a place we have all been. In retrospect we see that the call we made, for better or worse, had far-reaching impact. And often we didn’t even recognize at the time. Think back over your career, or personal life.  See if you can identify pivotal decisions, ones that determined the course of things in serious ways, for better or worst. Marriage and divorce, children, college, major in college, first job, career changes, business or professional strategies, key people.

In the organizational safety world these dilemmas present themselves in a few categories: things like selection of key employees, budgets, and strategies being big ones for senior leaders; response to safe protocol deviation, shutdowns, elevation of hazards at lower levels of leadership. 

Five Things You Can Do

1) Realize that having the dilemma is in itself good not bad. In our studies of safety-related decisions we’ve seen that as much as half the time, the leader who made the wrong call did so with no recognition of the hazard. Had they gotten to the dilemma they would have been ahead.

2) Find someone you trust to talk it over with. Maybe a small group or maybe a mentor, close friend, or trusted advisor. A good person you can talk to is an immeasurable asset because the two of you will think of things you will miss as an individual. Collective intelligence kicks in and you are better off for it.

3) Go thru a formal process if you are stuck. Get a tool and lay it out in writing. Get clear on what the call you have to make is, precisely, then what the options are, then probabilities associated with the options. 

4) Digging into an issue will almost always bear fruit. The source of dysfunction in this area is much more from avoidance, unawareness, or not giving sufficient energy than from making a bad call after deliberation.

5) The ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the ancient Persians had a decision rule that was ‘deliberate drunk, decide sober’. It wasn’t a prescription it was an acknowledgment that the emotional components that go into decision making can be very strong, and their best place was in the process of deliberation rather than in actually making the call.

None of this is a silver bullet, but if you improve your hit rate by even 20%, which is certainly attainable, you are way ahead.

Safe Decision Dilemmas and COVID-19

May 22, 2020


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