How has COVID-19 impacted our collective and independent decision making processes? In this piece, I want to highlight some recent academic research which suggests that COVID may have affected people's attitude to decision making. In light of this, I want to offer some insights into why decision making is so important, outline some different approaches, and finally offer some advice for making better decisions.
"Making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level. It needs to be taught explicitly to everyone in organizations that are based on knowledge." Peter F. Drucker
The pandemic continues to rumble on (omicron, anyone?) and inevitably, as we approach the end of another year, so does life and work! Time has flown by in 2021 but we are more aware of our personal and professional capabilities in this time of change. As we look forward to 2022, we all have resolutions and choices to make so that we can continue to adapt to this strange new world!
What does the COVID-19 decision making research say?
Scientists surveyed around 1,500 Americans online from April to June 2020. Participants were asked to rate their level of worry about the COVID-19 pandemic and complete a number of tests to measure their basic cognitive abilities. Results were then compared with the same tests completed before the pandemic.
They concluded that the worry related to COVID may have affected people's basic information processing ability, which could affect decision-making abilities. This has implications from a public health point of view, as it may influence people's decisions about getting a vaccine, taking a business trip, or throwing a party. As they said,
"Consistent with our predictions, we observed a marked decrease in individual’s executive control as a function of individual differences in experienced fear/worry."
Margie Warrell, a leadership expert, confirms that operating from a place of fear doesn’t allow us to tap into our full cognitive abilities. In a New York Times article on how to cope when everything is changing, she suggests that this fear/worry mind-set also “undermines the quality of our decision making, stifles our creativity and impairs our ability to take the most constructive actions we have within us to take”.
Vable’s Founder and CEO, Matthew Dickinson has a favourite organisational psychologist. Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D writes in one of his blog posts,
"When you lose hope in your future, then you have what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” or the belief that our traits and abilities can’t be changed. In order to have a growth mindset — a belief that you can grow through hard work and perseverance — you must have hope that the future can get better.
When you have hope, you experience setbacks differently. You’ll learn from them so you can do better in the future. This doesn’t mean you’re not bummed when they happen, but it does mean that you know how to emotionally regulate and cope. Whenever you experience failure, give yourself some space to recover, and then look at how you could improve."
The point is, we don’t have to be afraid. If we change the way we view our negative experiences (uncertainty, fear and worry about the future to name just a few), we can focus on growth and positivity, reduce anxiety, and improve our decision making along the way.
Why is decision making important?
I’ve been researching library and information conferences for next year: which conference will make the most impact, how many should we attend and in which countries, who in the team will attend etc.? It’s an important tactical decision. Many library and information managers will also be making similar decisions - not just about event attendance but a hundred other important things!
All managers make preventable mistakes. For instance, we sometimes underestimate how long something will take or we fail to take advantage of something that would benefit us or our team. This is why library directors and managers need training on decision making. It’s one of the most basic and fundamental of all managerial activities.
It’s about working in a more holistic way. We need to understand the factors that influence decision making and learn to deal with them so we can increase our chances of making the best possible decision in any given situation. If decision making is so important, should we be relying on instinct or logic?
Fast or slow thinking?
There are two modes of processing information which affect decision making: System 1 and System 2. These two modes of thinking were first described by Israeli-American psychologist and behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman, and in 2011, he published a book called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.
- System 1 is automatic, instinctive and emotional and can be described as “mental shortcuts to intuitive answers”.
- System 2 is slow, logical and deliberate and can be described as “methodical thinking through problems leading to considered solutions”.
Kahneman suggests that System 1 helps us to conserve our mental energy for the tasks that really require it but it also means our mind is limiting the depth of our intelligence and capacity to understand complex situations. The lesson is, instead of accepting the obvious answer, pause for a second and try to engage your savvy System 2 thinking. Don’t let your lazy instinctive brain try to take the easy way out!
Types of decision and decision making occasions
Heads and directors of library services, or indeed any other managers, are responsible for making all types of decisions. These decisions can be split into two groups; there are regular events that take place on an annual, monthly and daily basis AND occasions which call for immediate action. Here are some examples from the first group:
- Strategic decisions - these are long term decisions about the overall direction or strategy of the team, for example, whether or not to embark on a new project/activity. These types of decisions require full thought and investigation. Information gathering is essential!
- Tactical decisions - short term decisions about doing things efficiently and effectively within the existing strategy, for example, recruiting new people and expanding the team, budgets, creating new procedures, or implementing an automated current awareness solution.
- Operational decisions - day-to-day decisions about operational activities, for example, daily timetables to prioritise tasks.
The second group includes:
- Crisis - a sudden or unexpected event which requires immediate action. We have seen this a lot over the past couple of years. For example, rapid deployment of remote working, reimagining IT systems, creating health and safety protocols, furloughing of staff, and so much more.
- Problem - something which becomes apparent gradually over time but is not clear cut in the early stages.
- Opportunity - a chance to do something that will be of benefit to you, your team or organisation. For example, have you been asked to present a paper at a conference, or get involved in a cross-firm initiative?
These last types, especially “crisis” and “problem”, often cause difficulties for managers. They require an element of rapid decision making - less system 2 and more system 1. With something as unprecedented as responding to COVID, crisis decisions have had long reaching consequences. As “crisis” has moved into “strategy”, people have had to adapt to change and create a new type of future.
Why is it so difficult to make a decision?
Why do many people have a strong aversion to making difficult decisions? Decision making can be stressful and create a high level of anxiety. Some decisions are stressful because the outcome might have extensive consequences, and/or they might impact other people. It might just be because we all experience this process in different ways, as we know, some people find it easier than others to make a decision.
- Are we letting underlying biases cause our indecision? For example, suffering from overconfidence or lack of confidence, attempting to maintain the status quo?
- Are we under too much pressure to think things through properly? For example, no time to assimilate information, do we have enough information, does the information keep changing?
- Are we letting emotions get in the way? For example, do we fear the outcome of the decision?
As the research above demonstrated, sometimes we struggle to make decisions because of external stress factors - we are all at the mercy of our environments. Domestic, professional, and other community factors can have an impact.
This is why, since the global COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an increase in HR articles focussing on the S in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) - the social impacts of a business, particularly on its workforce and wider supply chain are more important than ever.
How can we make better decisions?
Having relevant information at our fingertips helps with decision making - after all, being 'forewarned is forearmed'! Now that we are aware that there may be ongoing consequences of the pandemic, we can make allowances for them. Here are some ideas for making better decisions:
- Accept and acknowledge that there is more than one way to do something; propose an outcome/solution and then take a break from it. When you are refreshed, without referring to your previous solution, draft another one - in this way you aren’t limiting your ability to achieve new insights and avoiding that “fixed mindset”.
- Use premortems to imagine a future failure so you can identify potential problems that ordinary foresight won’t bring to mind. You can anticipate exit strategies and highlight factors that will influence success or failure. Talking to people and getting other perspectives is crucial.
- Prepare to be wrong and don’t trip yourself up by being overly optimistic. Be mindful of planning fallacies, and ensure that you give yourself plenty of time - especially relating to the formulation of strategic and tactical decisions. Time pressure, negative emotions, exhaustion and other stressors will not help the process.
Decisions had to be made quickly during the early and turbulent days of the pandemic - there was little time for premortems or “sleeping on it”. But there was also no time for procrastination or rigid thinking. The crisis has transformed - and continues to transform - organisations but we have to create a clear vision to reap the benefits and prepare for the future.
There is a great HBR article on why we dodge difficult decisions, in it Rima Pundir says,
While we would never advise you make split-second decisions and just plunge in without weighing the pros and cons – you do have to make the decision quickly and concisely and remember these thoughts.
- More thinking is not always good thinking.
- Learn to trust your intuition or gut feel.
- Give a deadline to decision making.
- Accept that you cannot always have it all; you might have to compromise a little.
- Finally, if a decision you took ultimately proves to be wrong – remember that life does hand you lemons sometimes.
How do you make your decisions? Do you rely more on system 1 or system 2? What’s the best decision you made in 2021?