Decision making in an emergency or even a crisis is an art. The decision-makers are either simply good at it or in the end are only lucky to know who to call. However, the right decision is often made for the wrong reasons! For those who know that they are not brilliant at making decisions or do not want to rely on their luck, I have looked at simple tools and techniques that are easy for emergency teams to understand and therefore applicable during an incident.

One of the tools that many try to use and adopt is the UK Police National Decision Model (NDM). Many business continuity consultancies teach a civil version of it. It’s a little too complex for me and I’m still looking for something simpler.

Looking for insights and tools for decision making, I came across an excellent paper by Carolyne Smart and Ilan Vertinsky entitled “Designs for Crisis Decision Units”. Part of this paper deals with “groupthink” and some techniques to avoid it. Recognizing the effects of stress and avoiding group thinking helps you to have the best chance of making effective decisions when incidents occur.

According to the Cambridge English Business Dictionary, group thinking is defined as “the process in which bad decisions are made by a group because its members do not want to express opinions, suggest new ideas, etc. that others potentially disagree with”. Especially under the stress of a new unknown situation such as an emergency, untrained members of an emergency team tend to think this way. They are more likely to leave leadership to others and adopt their opinions because they believe they have more experience and therefore are more likely to make the right decisions.

So if we know that our team may be susceptible to group thinking, how do we recognize its occurrence and what measures can we take to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place? According to Smart and Vertinsky, there are eight symptoms of group thinking:

  • Most group members develop an illusion of invisibility that promotes excessive optimism and high-risk decisions.
  • The group ignores warnings and negative feedback that could force a decision to be re-evaluated. Efforts are made to rationalize the status quo.
  • Group members show a strong belief in their own morality. The ethical and moral consequences of the decision can be completely ignored.
  • The group has a stereotypical view of its opponent and usually underestimates him. The opponent is considered immoral and too evil to try to offer real conflict resolution negotiations, or too stupid or weak to take effective countermeasures.
  • The group exerts pressure on all members who doubt a course of action or question arguments supported by the majority. The disadvantage of any action is not discussed.
  • Individual members exercise self-censorship and remain silent about their own doubts.
  • Group members share the illusion that unanimity means truth.
  • The group develops self-proclaimed “mindguards” that protect decision-makers from members who violate supposedly shared beliefs.

What measures can we take to avoid group thinking in our team?

  • Have emergency team members discuss the problem or solution with their “home” team to get an external view and review or challenge the solution.
  • Use creative problem-solving techniques such as brainstorming that can lead to independent thinking and ideas rather than following the consensus of the group.
  • Set up the consideration of long-term issues as part of the agenda or appoint someone to look at long-term solutions in parallel. In this way, short-term decisions can be viewed critically and checked to see if they fit a long-term solution.
  • Give a person the role of the devil’s advocate (“Maverick”) and question the group’s solutions. The role should rotate in the team so that Maverick does not become a “group enemy” at some point, which again inspires group thinking.
  • Participation in exercises can help to strengthen the team’s confidence and generate experience that they can draw on to challenge group solutions and decisions.
  • The use of professional external help, such as the involvement of an external crisis management professional in the team, can again provide an alternative perspective and they can bring their experience to bear to contribute to group decisions.

The next time you are in an exercise or meeting, see if you can see the first signs of group thinking or if you are sure that the emergency team members are making independent decisions and if there is an appropriate discussion to ensure that the best decision is made. The integration of some of the above techniques into the work of the staff will contribute to the quality of decision-making by your emergency team.

By the way, Apollo 13 is a great educational film about this.
Link: Designs for Crisis Decision Units