Business Continuity Tip of the Month

The deciding factor

Whilst effective decision-making is often linked to the quality and accuracy of available information (see ‘The wheat from the chaff‘ and ‘Questioning the answers‘), another important, though often overlooked, consideration is ‘decision fatigue’.

Decision fatigue refers to the fact that the more decisions we have to make, the worse the quality of those decisions tends to become. And the phenomenon is generally thought to be linked to the number, rather than the importance of those decisions. Much like muscle fatigue, if the ‘decision muscle’ is exercised too frequently, it will tire and weaken and will eventually fail. Decision fatigue is exacerbated when the decision-maker is tired or when glucose levels are low.

By definition, our crisis or incident management teams contain decision-makers (if yours doesn’t, you should seriously question whether the right people are in it!). So these people, who are often required to make numerous challenging, thought provoking decisions in their business as usual roles, may be called upon to make critical decisions in a crisis context. And, depending when the crisis happens (towards the end of a busy day, for instance), they may have to do so when they’ve already used up their decision-making ‘quota’, in which case their ability to make quality decisions may be impaired. Worse still, ‘decision inertia’ can set in, whereby decisions are delayed or not made at all. 

The best remedy for decision fatigue is the same as for any other type of fatigue – rest. The importance of alternates or deputies to the primary crisis or incident management team members cannot, therefore, be overstated. Most of us have our own ‘war stories’ about how we worked 24, 36, 48 hours or more at a stretch – what we usually neglect to mention is how effective our decision-making and our ability to think rationally was by the end!

Other tactics for combating decision fatigue include ensuring that we eat properly and stay hydrated, along with minimising the number of unimportant or trivial decisions we have to make, by delegating or allowing someone else to decide for us. Barack Obama is often quoted as saying “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make”. Agreeing pre-determined actions for certain triggers or using structured decision-making processes or tools can also help. 

Whilst we may like to think we’re super-human, actually most of us aren’t and decision fatigue is something that we all suffer from, from time to time. So it’s important to recognise it as a potentially limiting factor in crisis management and consider ways to avoid it or minimise it. The best time to make those decisions, however, is probably not when we’re in crisis decision-making mode!

The original idea for this tip came from the article ‘Decision fatigue in crisis management: modern day challenges of multi-tasking incident managers‘ by Paul Kudray



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