Head of Learning & Development Phoenix Leaders
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Working through coronavirus: reflective versus reactive decision making during a crisis

The Covid-19 outbreak is raising a number of critical questions for businesses as they struggle to get to grips with a new way of working. When faced with difficult issues, however, what’s the best way to make a decision: in a reactive or a reflective way? The answer is not as simple as you might think…

2nd Apr 2020
Head of Learning & Development Phoenix Leaders
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Male and female characters standing in thoughtful pose holding chin and question marks above their head.
iStock/Olha Khorimarko

The impact of coronavirus has shaken the business world. Every day, employers across the globe are facing the unprecedented challenge of keeping their businesses operating amidst the current pandemic. During this complex period, companies will be faced with making many difficult decisions if they are to weather the storm – but in moments like these, what does strong decision making actually look like?

The scale and singularity of the coronavirus pandemic presents an acute dilemma for businesses around the world. If businesses are to survive, they must strike a fine balance between reactive and reflective decision making.

The hallmark of effective decision making centres on knowing when to hold off on a decision to gather more information and when to make a decision with the information at hand. Knowing when to react quickly or when to take the time to reflect can make or break a company. Slow reactions can lead to missed opportunities, while premature decisions can lead to organisational resources being poorly allocated to projects with no chance of success.

So, in the face of Covid-19, do you find yourself rushing to solve problems at work or are you allowing enough time to make decisions? With the challenges and changes we are facing every day, businesses need to pause and think about this carefully if they are to stay ahead of the game.

How we make decisions is a matter of survival

Reactive decision making is quick, impulsive and intuitive. It is guided by emotion and habit, helping us to work out what to do next.

Reflective decision makers take a more deliberate and methodical approach to problems. Rather than jumping to immediate solutions, they analyse the problem from many possible angles before taking action.

Being a reactive or reflective decision maker is not entirely our own choice; it is the product of evolution. Research suggests that each type of response is directed by different parts of the brain, and the brain can only use one of these systems at a time to process information.

While our prefrontal cortex is more involved in the reflective system, the basal ganglia and amygdala are more involved in the reactive system. This distinction is grounded in human evolution: our basal ganglia and amygdala are the more primitive parts of the brain responsible for our flight or fight survival instinct.

Clearly, the way we make decisions is predetermined by innate biological responses. We still have some degree of control, however, and small measures can help us gradually take ownership of the way we make decisions during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

When to react and when to reflect

We live in a complex world and knowing when to react or reflect greatly depends on the nature of the problem at hand. The scale and singularity of the coronavirus pandemic presents an acute dilemma for businesses around the world. If businesses are to survive, they must strike a fine balance between reactive and reflective decision making.

If you want to make a long lasting impact on your business you must learn to push back from impulsive decision making and start to seriously reflect on any issues or challenges that arise at work. 

Successful reactive decision making is guided by habit and years of experience, yet few organisations have had to face a global problem quite like coronavirus in recent years. So how can employers guide their companies with such little information available? It is clear that a reactive decision to send staff home is essential in order to safeguard them against spreading the virus. It is only through slow, methodical thinking, however, that employers can successfully manage their virtual community of staff working from home and plan for the future months.

Daniel Kahneman’s celebrated book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, highlights the effort required by slow thinking: “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead”. While careful, slow thinking is hard work for the brain, it will get to the core of a problem to avoid it in the future. By taking a step back to interrogate and face a problem head-on, we can become highly effective decision makers during this crisis period.

Turning reactive thinking into reflective thinking

If you want to make a long lasting impact on your business you must learn to push back from impulsive decision making and start to seriously reflect on any issues or challenges that arise at work. Here are three key tips businesses and their leaders can adopt to encourage reflective thinking:

1. Ask as many questions as you can – and then ask some more

We all want to create the perfect, immediate solution for problems at work, but this should never stop us from asking as many questions as it takes to truly frame a problem. Rigorous questioning is extremely productive in the long-term – it solves a problem and helps dismantle our inherent bias and assumptions. Asking open-ended questions like ‘what have I achieved today?’ or ‘how am I adding value to my company?’ will help employers dig out the necessary information within themselves and others to solve any problems the pandemic throws at them.

2. Set daily ‘reflection time slots’

The benefit of allotting 20 minutes in the day for reflection can save hours wasted by tactless, rash decision making. It allows a moment to assess why the day’s wins were successful, or why certain tasks were left uncompleted – are they actually a priority or is this just the feeling of guilt kicking in?

3. Don’t just rely on your own judgement – there is a virtual community to help

While the most experienced and efficient leaders have strong self-awareness, the majority of us need the help of others to recognise our bias and assumptions. Internal coaching and collective team thinking can go a long way in helping us look at a problem from different perspectives.

The most high-performing leaders always have key individuals who boost them to think reflectively and question themselves. Despite the pandemic, technology has made this network still possible through the rise of a virtual community working from home. Instead of feeling isolated and absorbed in your own thoughts, make sure to reach out to those people who will help you ask the right questions to make the right decisions.

The coronavirus outbreak has made successfully navigating the business world more challenging than ever before. In the face of it, leaders must learn to balance reactive thinking with reflective thinking. In doing so they will be able to make the strong decisions required to rise above the pandemic and pave the way for future years to come.

Interested in this topic? Read Reasoned judgements: five steps to help avoid bad decision making.

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