Between risk and certainty
Q: This week's nuclear summit presents one of those difficult leadership challenges: focusing attention and resources on a low-probability problem that would be disastrous if it occurred. Global warming, 100-year floods, financial meltdowns are other examples. How can a leader fight the natural tendency among followers to put off dealing with what seem like such abstract and complicated threats?
The dilemma posed by a low-probability, high-risk threat that could result in disaster such as those being discussed at the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. this week, is not as abstract a concept as people might imagine. Those of us who work in high-risk fields--pilots, soldiers, police, fire fighters, miners, offshore oil rig workers and nuclear power operators--must manage the tension between risk and certainty at work every day. Yet, beyond these fields, the ability to manage uncertainty is a skill more and more in demand.
Recent disasters have illuminated a surprising range of individuals required to act as key decision-makers during a crisis, especially during the initial onset of a problem when it may not yet be clear what the issue is. For example, actions taken by principals, teachers and university administrators during school shootings, hospital employees during hurricane evacuation, hotel managers during natural disasters, plant supervisors during industrial accidents and chief executives during product recalls, play central roles in determining when, and if, a situation escalates to full blown disaster. As a result, a wide range of professionals must have the ability to think through crisis and manage anxiety, sifting through ambiguous information in order to determine a course of action to avoid fatalities.
Social science researchers call this process naturalistic decision making (NDM), when knowledgeable individuals are operating in dynamic environments with ill-defined goals and ill-structured tasks, requiring real-time decisions in reaction to continuous change. Yet several NDM studies found that the difference between expert and novice decisions was more often related to the decision-making process itself, rather than the rank or experience of the leader. So how do such individuals do it?
It is essential that leaders take responsibility and act proactively. Just like high-risk professionals, leaders need to work collaboratively and think through often conflicting information in an unemotional, objective manner in order to determine the correct course of action while remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing priorities, sharing information and resources openly. This means acknowledging that even the low probability that disaster may strike entails admitting the intrinsic risk and danger embedded in scenarios such as offshore oil rigs, coal mining, nuclear power, readily available guns and military interventions in unstable political arenas.
World leaders like President Obama in Washington this week can learn from this by not shying away from the challenge of this decision making process. All constituents must share the risk, no matter how remote the chance of disaster.
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