Leadership & Decision-Making During COVID-19

Our Director of Psychosocial Services GRAHAM FAWCETT shares some considerations for organisation leaders.

Leadership can be scary enough without throwing a pandemic into the mix. In this blog, I’ll outline how organisation leaders may be impacted as a decision maker, how to reduce the risks of bad things happening as much as is reasonably practical, and how to make the best possible decisions.

Impact of Anxiety on Decision Making

A very small number of leaders will find a major threat nothing to worry about. They will recognise that action is required, and their colleagues will notice little difference in their behaviour. These kind of leaders tend towards a reduced ability to feel emotions – such as compassion or anxiety. It’s a life-long trait. And if it remains ethical, it’s a huge boon in a crisis, because they have cool heads and can be very calm. The downside is their inability to understand the distress of others and the impact of fear.

For a larger cohort of leaders, our emotions respond to threat such that we become hyper-organised and logical. We feel for others but, again, the tendency is to problem-solve and use logic. Colleagues of these leaders will notice this shift, and in particular their leader’s reduced tolerance for emotional language (e.g. “I feel…”).

At the other end of the bell curve of these personality traits are those leaders who are super-sensitive to the pain and turmoil in others, and so want to mitigate or solve these things as best they can. Such reflective thinkers can become overwhelmed or emotionally over–invested when faced with complex, urgent decisions.

Most of us lie somewhere between all of these. And yet, in these days, we will have noticed an uptick in our own stress or anxiety levels. We’re likely to a bit more tetchy, somewhat less focused, a more distracted.

The pressure and complexity of the decisions that need to be made can make some of us more likely to make snap decisions, while others will be more likely to seek ever more data before coming to a conclusion.

Counter-intuitively, it helps to have a small crisis management team in this situation. This team should have as many of these characteristics represented as possible, and they should be people you trust.  This will slow the decision making process down a bit, but it will enable you to come to a more balanced decision that is also more likely to be either the correct one or the least bad one. A team of at least three, and at most seven, who can come together (virtually) at little notice, is optimal especially if it reflects the demographic of your agency.

Risk Analysis

You know this, but in these times, we need reminding: we can’t eliminate risk, ever. All we can do is reduce it to as low as reasonably practical. Risk has two factors – the likelihood of a bad thing happening, and the impact of a bad thing happening. If you Google ‘Risk Assessment Matrix’, you will find multiple examples of what are called ‘grids’ and ‘traffic light systems’ which you can use to support your decision making.

Once you have one of these grids, the next step is invaluable: how to mitigate unacceptable risks so that the event is either less likely to occur or, if it does occur, its impact is reduced. For example, if I am an asthmatic who is currently feeling well, but self-isolating, then my risk of becoming unwell is low, but the impact remains the same. However, if I travel, then my risk of becoming infected rises to moderate. And if my asthma is very bad then I am safer staying put than moving to a more pleasant or even safer environment. 

Much of our job as leaders in difficult times is balancing the risk of conducting our normal activities, whilst also keeping the risk to our staff to as low as reasonably practical.  The balancing factor is our duty of care to our staff and to our beneficiaries.

Top Tips

  • Don’t do this on your own
  • Form a team with diverse talents and a commitment to the same goals.
  • Use standard risk analysis tools that lay out event probability and possible harm 
  • Don’t try to wing it or discuss solutions without a simple risk analysis document
  • Be prepared to decide the least-worst option – there are unlikely to be good options.
  • Design your systems and solutions to serve the needs of the most.  If prevaricating means no one gets a service whilst a decision would mean 70% get the service, then take the decision.

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