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Decision fatigue in crisis management: modern day challenges of multi-tasking incident managers

‘Decision fatigue’ describes the way that the quality of our individual decisions and our rationale deteriorates as a result of sustained periods of information coming in to us and having to make a number of decisions against any given subject(s). Paul Kudray takes a look at the issue and explains why it is an important consideration during incident management.

"Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex," says Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist who studies decision fatigue and a co-author of ‘Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.’

"It's the same willpower that you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom," Baumeister told the New York Times. "Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone's offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time."

Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs are all famously known for wearing the same outfit (almost) every day for this very reason: to take away the unnecessary decisions, leaving themselves the willpower and strength to throw at the decisions that matter.

What does that mean for crisis managers?

When an emergency happens, many people within an organization are asked to balance their everyday business situation decisions with those of the emergency situation. But have they already used up their decision making quota?

Lessons identified

There have been a number of developments in incident, disaster and crisis management principles that have resulted in a more shared and common methodology of decision making. Such models have been widely used in the past to good effect and it is more of an expected requirement in any incident response (especially public sector) to utilise a structured decision making process when faced with pressing, unfolding scenarios, often involving the need to save lives.

Some organizations - such as those within the emergency services and forces - will be more drilled into using such a decision making tool whilst others - from other organizations who form part of the response phases to an emergency - may not be as disciplined, or comfortable, with this application.

The important factor here is that public and legal scrutiny will form part of any post-incident investigation: in particular, looking at how the decision to do this, or not to do that, was achieved.

The finger in the air days have long since gone!

Burden of expectation

I’ve read a considerable amount about decision fatigue and, as part of my reading, I’ve studied a great deal about decision fatigue in respect of emergency management arrangements: to avoid decision inertia whereby choices are delayed, or do not happen. Because the ‘doing nothing’ concept is not an option.

It’s less clear to note the study of decision fatigue within modern professionals who, by day, work extremely hard within their own field of professional expertise, but are also required to offer ‘on call’ management support and have to make quality decisions for their organization, or as a part of a multi-agency response capability.

There’s clearly a significant shift towards the ‘more people know less’ capability, in respect of emergency management across multi-agency arrangements. Senior leaders within organizations, who form part of multi-agency incident management teams, will have already made a high number of challenging, thought provoking decisions during their normal working day. These senior managers go from meeting to meeting … to meeting.

The burden of expectation on such individuals has increased. They need to ‘perform’ at the very highest levels in their own job role first; their own job being any number of jobs all running simultaneously, cutting through a number of disciplines and departments.

The cumulative effect on their mind is that it will become tired.

Tiredness can kill

The roadside information we see on highways relates to our ability to concentrate effectively during a long drive and journey. I’m not saying this fully equates to decision fatigue risks during a sustained emergency management response to incidents… but why not?

We have to face facts. As fewer people in each organization are available to be on call (avoiding the - pardon the expression - bums on seats factor of putting people on a rota, rather than them being appropriately trained and competent), only a small number of multi-tasking (non-emergency service) professional managers may go from a day of challenging business decisions to a situation where they’re required to change their thinking and attitudes to one of saving lives, in an extremely challenging environment.

I don’t mean they’ll necessarily find themselves on the front line. Rather in a situation that calls them to represent their own organization’s needs and capabilities as part of a multi-agency approach.

Disasters and emergencies happen at any time of day or night. They pay no respect to a fresh mind. Decisions need to be made by the responsible people at the right time, regardless of the sort of day we’ve had already!

Resilient mind

It’s never going to be easy to offer a simple fix. We find ourselves in a situation we’ve both inherited and created as part of our modern way of working. Managers need to manage on a day to day basis, then, when a crisis or emergency occurs, they move into a more critical decision making mode.

In some organizations, the state of mind of the individuals involved in critical situations is an essential element to the safety and security of the operation. It gets checked in various ways to ensure a clear focus on the mission ahead. This is not the same case and application to that of the multi-agency approach at (for example) a strategic or tactical coordinating group. Boundaries will and do exist and it’s something that’s not easy to spot, or consider, before the big decisions have to be made. But it should!

We may have the right people in attendance around the table. But in respect of mental strength and focus, we need to be sure that everyone’s mind is as resilient as can be, at the right time and in the right place. Decision making processes and tools won’t make it easier to make the tough decisions, but they should make the decision makers better at making them. We can only achieve this if we are aware of the factors that could create a decision fatigue situation. Not just in our own minds, but in the team we are part of.

The author

Paul KudrayAn international leader in business resilience consultancy, training and coaching; Paul Kudray, MSc FICPEM CBCI AMBCI Fellow of the EPC, is an ex-emergency services commander who finished an exemplary 32 year career in the UK healthcare sector, working for the NHS - culminating in 7½ years as the Director of Resilience for one of the world’s largest ambulance services, NWAS NHS Trust. He now works with private and public sector clients around the world, training, advising, coaching and mentoring them at the highest levels about emergency and business continuity management. Paul's company is KCLContact Paul at paul@kudrayconsulting.com or via LinkedIn 



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