Leading in crisis: The four traps of decision making
During the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Colonel Strong Vincent, a brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, learned from a passing courier that the Union left flank was undefended and that the Confederates were advancing on Little Round Top. Seizing this position would allow the Confederates to fire on the entire Union line and force the retreat of Union forces, opening the road to Washington. Recognizing the tactical significance of the position, Vincent, without waiting for orders, moved his brigade into a blocking position. What followed was one of the most dramatic and pivotal engagements of the war, one that decided the battle of Gettysburg and most probably the war itself. Though Vincent fell in the battle, his ability to recognize the crisis, to make critical decisions under pressure, and to deploy his resources inspired his brigade to hold the vital position on the Little Round Top.
Leadership in crisis is ultimately about decision making. Other critical steps, such as recognizing and isolating the crisis prepare you to make decisions, while the deployment of resources are based on the decisions made by the leader. The pivotal point in any crisis is the making of the decision about how one will deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, without recognizing the four traps of decision making, it is too easy to make the wrong decision.
Trap #1: Maintaining the status quo
One of the major problems in leading in a crisis is the psychological tendency to do nothing. There is a tendency to normalize events – to see what we expect to see. It is easy to miss cues or indicators. If there are no consequences for doing, there is no need to make a decision. Unfortunately, this is the default mode for many decision makers.
Trap # 2: Taking the easy way out
Assuming that there are consequences for inaction, the next consideration is whether there is a risk in taking action. If there is no perceived risk in taking a specific action, there is really no need to make a decision or to consider alternative courses of action.
Trap #3: Giving up
When available courses of action all carry risks, the tendency is to search for a better solution. The trap here is that it if there is a perception that no low risk solutions are available, the decision maker may become fatalistic or apathetic, exhibit behaviors such as ignoring or selective interpreting information, or attempt to pass the responsibility for decision making to someone else.
Trap #4: Running out the clock