Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Principals from across the country are grappling with an array of difficult decisions forced upon them by the current Coronavirus pandemic. Now that your school is closed, when should you reopen? If your school must remain closed for an extended period, how should you allocate your resources to protect children and keep education going?

And while the decisions themselves are complicated, the challenge doesn’t end there. On top of the difficulties of the decisions themselves is the climate in which they must be made – in crisis. This is why understanding some of the principles of decision making in crisis mode can be beneficial at such a difficult time.

Why is Crisis Decision Making So Difficult?

1. Anxiety and Fear Lay The Tunnel Vision Trap

Let’s face it, for most of us, our feelings about COVID-19 are marked by anxiety and fear, and sometimes even panic. Aside from the emotional discomfort we experience, these emotions constrict the breadth of our attention, trapping us in tunnel vision. Anxiety and fear divert precious cognitive resources, preventing us from exploring other options. Consequently, we stay with what we know, which may not be optimal.

What’s more, anxiety and fear, like the virus itself, are incredibly contagious. Our anxiety and fear can easily be detected by those around us, not only through our choice of words, but by our tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. When convening school leaders to make a group decision, the anxiety and fear will echo among the assembled and all but guarantee poor decisions.

2. Uncertainty and Risk

Principals and other school leaders have been trained to make decisions that are both evidence-based and data-informed. And whereas many leaders claim that scientific evidence provides very high levels of certainty, the truth is quite different. Scientific research abounds with uncertainty.

The scientific method used to predict the probability of a future occurrence is based upon analyzing the data of a past event. And yet, despite high levels of accuracy in analyzing the data, the past is no more than an imperfect predictor of the future.

Research regarding schools during the 1918 influenza pandemic is a case in point.  Data shows that cities, where schools were closed reactively, had higher mortality rates than those cities where the schools were closed proactively.

Using the 1918 influenza pandemic as a precedent would instruct school leaders regarding school closings. However, this data wasn’t from the current pandemic, but from a previous one. Those opposing school closures can posit that the probabilities will be different for COVID-19, and at the moment, there is no way to disprove them.

How to Make Sound Decisions in a Crisis

1. Slow Down

So the crucial question is, “how do you make good decisions in the face of these mitigating factors?” Perhaps the first and possibly the best thing to do is to slow down. Panic generally drives people to take immediate action. They believe that the way to beat or neutralize a threat is to act, and act quickly. The problem is that such reflexive action will unlikely be useful in the face of our current pandemic.

At this point, there is both abundant information regarding COVID-19 as well as advice from medical authorities on how to react. It is essential to take the necessary time to read and digest this information before making the critical decisions that will impact your school. Don’t decide to act based upon a headline or a tweet. Rather deliberate, reflect, and consult with experts.

2. Focus on Core Values

Although even evidence-based decision making carries uncertainty and risk, the situation can be navigated. Put your values front and center, and allow them to guide you. Once you have resolved that your plan is the best for the health of your students and their families, then follow your heart by sticking to it despite outside pressures.

3. Assemble a Team of Experts

Don’t be a hero by taking the entire responsibility on your shoulders. Assembling a group that will provide for a variety of views will enhance the whole process. Be sure that you include the necessary expertise in the group. In crisis decision making there is no advantage in a popular vote. This isn’t about finding a majority; it’s about making the best possible decision.

The Bottom Line

Don’t kid yourself. Just because you better understand the process of decision making in the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t guarantee your decision will be easy or even correct. Data doesn’t necessarily reduce uncertainty. Your core values may clash with specific options that will provide short-term benefits. Even the experts may not be enough.

But by following this path, you will be empowered to move forward with the confidence that you are doing everything that you humanly can. What more can be asked of you?