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North Central Business Journal News

(November 2001 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

     A reader contacted me recently about a problem facing a lot of businesses at this time.  The company is experiencing several crises at the same time.  The reader asked for advice on how to make good decisions in a crisis.

    Crises have a way of interfering with our brain’s ability to think rationally.  The first step in making decisions in a crisis time is to recognize that our initial ideas may be tainted by our body’s reactions to the crisis.  Thus, the first ideas we have are probably not very good ones.  We may need to force ourselves to continue the decision process beyond those first apparent solutions.

    Having recognized that our initial ideas may not be the best ones, a useful second step is to write down exactly what is the problem we are facing.   Many times, we misinterpret the problem.  Writing it down helps clarify what the problem actually is.  Writing things down also keeps the brain operating rationally.  While writing appears time-consuming, it actually reduces the time spent on waffling between options.   It is a helpful way to keep the brain operating rationally when the body tries to shut down the rational brain.

    The third step is to describe all the options we see available to address the problem.  This gets us away from negative thinking and keeps the brain functioning rationally.  We discover that there are several options.

 On a piece of paper, it is beneficial to list each of the possible ways derived from step three.  Then for each option, list all the positive and negative effects that could occur if that option were implemented.   This step should allow the decision-maker to see several alternatives whose negative effects would outweigh the positive effects, and those alternatives can be discarded.

    One is usually left with two or three options from which to choose.  These options will have good points and bad points.  Our usual tactic is to attempt to juggle the positive and negative effects of each choice, doing some type of mental arithmetic.  This doesn’t work very well, because it is difficult for us to make those types of value judgments when faced with several options.

    Research on these types of decisions, where we are choosing between alternatives which have both positive and negative aspects, has discovered that when we are close to choosing one of these options, we are drawn to the other one.  The negative aspects of the close option loom large and the positive aspects seem small.  From the perspective of the close option, the other option appears just the opposite – the positive aspects seem huge and the negative aspects seem minute. 

    Our tendency is to return to the waffling between the options.  This increases our stress level, and prevents us from making a rational choice.  To eliminate this stress, we need to make a rational decision.

    The best way to address this decision is to look only at the negative effects.   If there are negative effects which are absolutely intolerable, then no matter how wonderful the positive effects are, that choice is unacceptable.  If, however, one could tolerate any of the negative effects, even if one would not like them, then the negative aspects are ignored.

    Now look only at the positive effects.   It is always easier to choose between positive aspects.    No consideration is given to the negative effects, since while unpleasant, they are tolerable. 

    Once a decision is made based on the positive aspects of the options, the first reaction will be that one has made a mistake.  One’s entire visceral reaction will be that the other option is really the best one.  That is because we are so close to the option that the other option looks fantastic with minimal negatives.  If we can remind ourselves that we in fact made a rational choice, within a short period of time, the positive aspects of the choice will become large and the positive effects of the other will become small.    A rational decision has been made. 

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.. Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses. Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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