Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

You will notice that the first three blogs have all been about the leader—not the crisis. This is intentional, as we think you—the leader—need to be ready in  yourself for the challenge  you are  facing. You can never be fully ready, but the basics I am suggesting  can help you. I will be offering four more posts dedicated just to you preparing  yourself—rapidly—for this challenge, and then we will move to working with the  crisis  itself, and your team, and the broader set of actors you will need to engage for help.

As indicated in the third blog post, I do not believe there is a one best way approach  to do this work. I hope these ideas will help you think actively about the approach you will take.

Let’s remember the ideas shared so far (with  links to the relevant blogs):

  1. Clarify your ‘public’ motivation (it’s what will keep you strong and  focused),
  2. Be honest —but not hampered by—about self-doubt,
  3. Commit to communicate—to help people deal with fear and accept change,
  4. Identify your key people and how you will motivate and mobilize them, and
  5. Fight all tendencies to freeze, by being brave (take responsibility, nothing less), being calm (responding quickly not rashly), and being adaptive (remember there is no perfect response, so try and be  willing  to  change) 

We wonder if you agree with these ideas? Or if you have tried answering the  questions asked in relation to the ideas: they are designed to help you actively prepare yourself.

Notice the important, vital message embedded in idea 5 (above): One day in the  future, when this crisis is averted or resolved or managed into some new and acceptable equilibrium, you will not be tested on whether you did things perfectly. You  will, instead, be tested on whether you ultimately managed  to help your people get through it, albeit imperfectly. You will almost certainly have made mistakes and be able to learn lessons to do things better, but you will also know that your success in leading would not have been possible without the mistakes. So please, adopt a brave but calm try-learn-adapt mentality to your leadership. Your goal is to steer your ship through this storm in a good manner. Don’t let the  perfect be the  enemy  of that good.

Today’s blog post topic is also centered on you, but also gives you some ideas to ponder about why it is so hard to mobilize your  people, and how you might communicate with them to get them mobilized in the face of the crisis. The topic is ‘you as a leader must be smarter than your brain’ (especially in  this crisis).

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I take the title from a comment by Eric McNulty, the Director of Research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI). The NPLI has a variety of great resources for you to access as you lead through this crisis. See their website and videos on various topics, including a great conversation on ‘you’re it: crisis, change, and how to lead when it  matters most’. I will draw on this video in a future session on how you keep ethics in mind when responding to crises.

In this blog post, though, I want to draw on a talk McNulty did on meta-leadership and the mistakes leaders can make when they do not take charge of their own brains in crises. Please watch Eric’s presentation below, it is only 8 minutes. You will want to take notes.

Eric’s argument is simply that you need to know how your brain works and how to make it work best in crises situations  (something relevant for everyone but particularly for leaders who are using their brains constantly in these times to make decisions). He discusses a few biases and heuristics that our brains use as  ‘short cuts’ to process information, but which may not be the best short cuts in times of crisis.

First, our brains tend to go to information that is easy to retrieve (what is called ‘availability bias’) when processing decisions. This is why many of us will think back to the ‘last time something like this happened’ when faced with a crisis. If things turned out fine ‘last time’ without much behavioral change or risky leadership decisions, we as leaders – and our people – might well decide to act in limited ways now (even if the information about ‘now’ says things are different).  In the Covid-19 situation, for instance, many people might say “It’s just like the flu—we can get through that” or “SARS and MERS were not that bad, we got through those challenges without much trouble.” Make sure you are smarter than your brain—and help your people master their brains as well—by forcing yourself and others to examine the new information about ‘this crisis’ and countering your availability bias. [I will offer an  example of leaders communicating to get their people thinking ‘now’ not ‘then’; using information to contrast the past and present.]

Second, our brains tend to look for information that confirms what we already believe (what is called ‘confirmation bias’) when processing decisions. This bias fosters mistakes in interpreting the information we receive during a crisis. We tend to force this information into scripts we know (based on past experience, most of the time) rather than asking if new scripts need to be written. This can lead us to interpret the nature of the threat incorrectly, or choose the wrong response to the threat, and more. Make sure you are smarter than your brain—and help your people master their brains as well—by bringing different people and groups of people together to discuss and interpret the information you are receiving, adopting an ‘all points of view’ decision making strategy (like Six Thinking Hats) or assign people on your team to play ‘devil’s advocate’ at all times.

Third, our brains sometimes overestimate the likelihood of something happening (what is called ‘hindsight bias’ or ‘oversight bias’). This bias can make you overconfident in the face of a crisis. Because you think you predicted past events, you’re inclined to think you can see future events coming. You bet too much on the outcome being higher and you make decisions, often poor ones, based on this faulty level of confidence, without any strategy to learn if you were right or wrong or flexibility to adapt. Make sure you are smarter than your brain—and help your people master their brains as well—by constantly reminding yourself that you can’t predict the future, examining the data always (many  overconfident people ignore it), record your thought process (so you are explicit about your assumptions and ideas), make it a habit to consider alternative outcomes (so you don’t just settle passively on your biased one), and always build in ‘check in’ periods after you’ve made decisions so that you can assess if you were right or wrong and adapt.

Fourth, you need to understand what is known as the Amygdala Hijack—“the hardwired, instinctual freeze, fight, flight response that is in all of us.” This is in your brain. When it senses a threat (in a crisis) it triggers this response, preempting all of your other thinking (that’s why it’s called a hijack). It is also called ‘going to the basement’ (as McNulty explains)…where your decision making mechanisms are undermined. Note carefully: This happens to all of us. And, as McNulty says, “you  cannot lead well” when you are in the basement. “You have to get out of the basement” and get control of your brain. How do you do that? Using what McNulty calls a ‘trigger script’ – anything that lets you demonstrate self competence – like  taking three breaths, or counting to ten … anything to shut off the triple F response. Make sure you are smarter than your brain—and help your people master their brains as well—by developing habits (like trigger scripts) that help you get out of the basement quickly, and managing what you do when you are  in the basement (don’t give a speech, don’t interact with the media, don’t make a big decision).

McNulty and his colleagues train people to be smarter than their brain before crises, but you may be reading this in the midst of a crisis already. So reflect on these questions to start mastering your brain and putting yourself in the best possible place to lead your people through crisis:

  1. Do you think that you (as a leader) and your people are influenced by the availability bias (you look to past experience to interpret the new crisis)? Describe what ‘available information’ you think will bias your decsions? (eg. ‘this is like the flu, we know the flu’).
    • How might this bias lead to avoidable mistakes in the current crisis?
    • How can you discipline yourself to try  and overcome the availability bias?
    • How can you help your people to overcome their availability biases?
  2. Do you think that you (as a leader) and your people are influenced by the confirmation bias (you interpret new information to reinforce your own beliefs)?
    • How might this bias lead to avoidable mistakes in the current crisis?
    • How can you discipline yourself to try  and overcome the confirmation bias?
    • How can you help your people to overcome their confirmation biases?
  3. Do you think that you (as a leader) and your people are influenced by the hindsight bias (you may be overconfident about a course of action you decide to take)?
    • How might this bias lead to avoidable mistakes in the current crisis?
    • How can you discipline yourself to try and overcome the hindsight bias?
    • How can you help your people to overcome their availability biases?
  4. Do you think that you (as a leader) are influenced by the Amygdala Hijack (where your brain ‘takes you to the basement’ when you are under threat or stress, undermining  your ability to make good decisions)?
    • How might this unavoidable ‘going to the basement’ lead you to make avoidable mistakes in the current crisis?
    • How can you discipline yourself to get out of the basement quickly?
    • How can you discipline yourself to not make avoidable mistakes while in the basement?
    • How can you help communicate to your people to help them manage their Amygdala Hijack events in this crisis period?

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 5 of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website

 

 

3 thoughts on “Public Leadership Through Crisis 4: You as a leader must be smarter than your brain”

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