How to Make the Right Decisions in a Crisis

Pete Ross

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Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Ryan DeBooy

We’re living in unprecedented times. Half the world is in lockdown, not even allowed to leave their homes, while elsewhere others walk around and gather in public recklessly, despite repeated warnings. Hospitals can’t cope because no one could predict something of this magnitude, and initial reports that young people handled the COVID19 well have been blown apart by many cases in the news of them suddenly dying before the test could even come back positive. For the average person, it’s terrifying.

So what do you do?

Step one: don’t panic

It seems so easy to say, doesn’t it? I can tell you from my time in the army though, that the number one enemy to making good decisions is panic. Thankfully, this isn’t a case where you have a moment’s notice that a company of enemy combatants is cresting the hill in front and you’ll have to fight for your life. You have time, and time is the greatest ally you have against panic.

The first step to not panicking is to focus only on what you can control here and now, and what the foreseeable outcomes of those decisions will be. Look too far into the future and you have too many variables. Too many variables is a cause for anxiety, because now things feel like they’re spinning out of control and you have to account for every one of them. If decision a leads to outcomes b or c, that’s all you need to focus on. Outcome r is a half dozen decisions away, any of which could make it a moot point.

Now, not panicking doesn’t mean you won’t have to make some hard decisions. Be prepared for that. The thing about knowing you have to make a hard choice though is that it makes it easier. The military actually prepares officers for this in their training by putting them in command of a situation where it isn’t possible to win. The goal in such a scenario is simple: stay calm, keep fighting and make the best decisions you can right until the end. Focus on the decision right in front of you and make the right call.

Remember, there’s no situation so bad that you can’t make it infinitely worse by panicking and making the wrong choices. Keep a cool head and make the best decisions you can.

Step two: focus only on what’s relevant

Go and look at any news site in my country right now and you’ll see hundreds of comments on any given article saying that the government isn’t doing enough, the message is confusing, we shouldn’t have stopped manufacturing ventilators, schools should be closed, we should have been better prepared.

Instead of commenting about should haves, these people would be far better served getting their own act together and focusing on what’s important for them right now. Worrying about things in the past or that someone else is doing is right next to panicking: it’s not only unhelpful, but it distracts you from making the right decisions in the here and now.

The clip below is instructive. It’s exactly what would be said in the military, and exactly the sort of thing you should keep in your mind. Should haves and could haves can wait for later. What needs to be done now?

Step three: realise that the government doesn’t care what happens to you

Whether you’re a soldier on the battlefield or a civilian during COVID19, the government doesn’t care about you, your family or friends on an individual level. It’s their job to minimise deaths overall by maximising the availability of healthcare resources. You’re just one number out of millions in that equation. Clearly the effectiveness of this varies wildly depending on what country you’re in as well. Having seen the plight of those in Italy, people all over the world are desperately wondering if there are enough beds, enough ventilators, enough resources in case they get sick, if there will be a vaccine or treatment soon. The solution to this?

Control what you can control.

This is going to be different for everyone, but the number one, most effective way to not end up in hospital and to live through COVID19 is to not get it in the first place. That’s literally the only guarantee you have. A mortality rate of 1% in your age bracket is cold comfort if you’re that 1%. For my family, that means I’m working from home, my wife isn’t taking any work for the time being and my daughter is home from school. It sucks — we’re losing my wife’s income and the only time we can go out is to get groceries. But in doing so, we minimise our exposure and chance of infection. That’s a trade-off worth making.

I know the government doesn’t care about me or my family personally; it’s my job to make the right decisions for us, no one else’s. The governments goals don’t necessarily line up with mine, so I have to walk my own path and not let them make my decisions for me. If you’re struggling to make your own decisions in the current climate, here’s a piece of advice:

Picture yourself as the hero in a movie right now — they aren’t waiting for help or freaking out, they’re taking appropriate action. What is that action? How are they going about it? What do they say or do in this situation that makes you admire and look up to them?

Do that.

Step four: get the information you need

It’s so hard to know who and what to trust right now. There is a lot of opinion flying back and forth, the media has been doing their best at being unhelpful and depending on what country you’re in, the political response can seem confusing. So in all of this, the question you need to ask yourself is: what do I need to know right now to make the right decisions for me and my family?

For me, it’s not about ventilators, it’s not about hospital beds and it’s not about whether schools should stay open so people can still go to work and keep the economy running. What I need personally is data on transmission in my area. So I did a bunch of reading and spoke to people who know epidemiology and statistics far better than I do. I’ve kept a close eye on the number of reported cases here. That has allowed me to make the right decision. Late last week when I saw the numbers continue to rise here (Australia), then I saw the behaviour of people both in the news and firsthand out in public, coupled with the news that we let cruise ships dock with dozens of confirmed infections who weren’t quarantined, that was enough data for me to realise that in 2–3 weeks, things are going to be bad.

So my family locked down. If I hadn’t gone out looking for that data, I wouldn’t have been able to make the right decisions. Only you will know what information you need to make the right decisions for you and your family. If you’re freaking out and are stuck on making choices, ask yourself what information you need to make the best choice possible. Go and find it.

Step five: overreact

“But you just said don’t panic!”

That’s right, I did say that. Overreacting and panicking are two different things. Panicking is an almost breathless anxiety that causes you to make decisions which are illogical, unhelpful or even dangerous. Panicking is what has caused people to clean out supermarkets of food, toilet paper and other supplies when there is no shortage to begin with. That’s not logic ruling, it’s fear.

Overreacting is looking at a situation such as this and with the data you have, working out as best you can what the likely scenario is, then assuming things will be worse than that. Erring on the side of pessimism is often a safe bet, and in the case of a virus where acting in a matter of days can make a big difference between getting it or not, overreacting and being on the right side of that timeline is going to give you a far better outcome than being optimistic.

  • Overreacting is wearing a mask and sanitising in public when everyone else just goes about their business in an oblivious fashion.
  • Overreacting is not going out even though everyone else thinks it’s fine.
  • Overreacting is sanitising everything after you get home from doing the grocery shopping.
  • Overreacting is isolating yourself when you think there’s a problem, even though others don’t.

A lot of you probably think that’s obvious and not overreacting at all — you’re likely in a country that is neck deep in it right now. Australia is just ramping up, and most people are oblivious. Doing the above is still rare here. Notice the thing about overreacting is that it doesn’t cost you anything. It’s a bit of extra effort that amounts to huge risk mitigation.

Step six: be a leader

If there’s one thing the world is crying out for right now, it’s leadership. We’re in a time of crisis and people are scared. We need more than Instagram influencers telling everyone to be safe and that they love us. My daughter is 6, and today I called our first ever family meeting. We sat and talked to her about what was happening and what we needed to do as a family to get through it. We talked about sacrifices and what’s important. By the time we were finished, we all walked away from the table with a sense of purpose and an easing of anxiety at what was happening.

The thing about leadership is that anyone can do it. It can be leadership of your family, your church, your sporting team or a whole company. You don’t need to be a four star general or Steve Jobs. Leadership is about filling a void of uncertainty with resolve and responsibility, telling those near you “this is what we’re going to do.” In fact, the second core behaviour of the Australian Army is “every soldier a leader.” Whether you’re a private or a captain, you’re expected to step up.

That scene from Kingdom of Heaven may seem trite, or Hollywood cliche. It’s not - Balian of Ibelin did actually knight peasants before battles. Anyone can be a leader, because leadership is a mindset. I know from experience. But you don’t have to be anointed by someone like Balian. You make a choice to take the burden onto yourself and serve others, and in a time of crisis that’s a high level of responsibility. You might not make all the right decisions, you won’t be perfect. No one is. Filling the void and making mistakes is better than doing nothing and letting those around you get caught in the maelstrom.

But leadership in a crisis isn’t just about telling people what to do. Sometimes it’s about being the social glue. Calling people to make sure they’re doing ok, being a person to talk to, keeping everyone’s spirits up. Most importantly, being a leader is about being the calm in the storm. We all know that panic is contagious. Thankfully, calm is as well. Lead in any way you can.

We’ve had countless situations throughout history where men and women the world over had risen to the occasion in unspeakable circumstances and been exemplars of the human spirit. Many of us have known comfort and little adversity all our lives. But now society is calling out for the very best in people to get through it.

What will you do?

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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