In-crisis decision making: majority rules decision making

Get free weekly news by e-mailPart five of Dennis Hamilton’s series on effective crisis management.

Stress caused by an event that has resulted in destruction, serious injuries and death can inflict anyone. No one is immune regardless of their position, title, age, sex or experience. Every person deals with stress differently, from mild anxiety to complete loss of responsive behaviour. For this reason alone, an organization should not rely on the decision making authority or capability of a single individual. The crisis response team must function on a ‘majority rules’ decision making basis. You can’t gamble the lives of people simply because of someone’s title!

However, a significant number of organizations believe that their in-crisis decision making process should be modelled after our public authorities; whereby a single individual has the decision making authority.

For public agencies, such as; police, fire fighters, EMS, the Armed Forces, etc., there is no question that operational command and control ultimately rests with a single person, a commander responsible for the event in which they are responding. However; this type of command structure does not work for 99 percent of organizations; those not providing public emergency response services.

Public service commanders are full-time professionals, continually trained, disciplined and qualified in ground-zero decision making; the rest of us are not. They are emotionally and politically detached from the event and its impact on your organization. Most companies’ crisis management organizations are comprised of volunteers, people from various operating areas of the organization. To most, crisis management is a part-time, add-on responsibility.

It is simply not fair or effective to place such a stressful and potentially traumatic responsibility on a single individual within your organization; nor is it healthy or politically wise for a single individual to accept such responsibility.

The impact of stress and trauma

Day-to-day stress, whether personal or professional, is inconsequential to the level of stress and anxiety that will result from a major crisis. Imagine the prospect of a catastrophic event (earthquake, terrorist attack, hurricane or explosion) where destruction, death and mass confusion encapsulates everything you must do as a member of your organization’s crisis response team.

We all deal with stress and trauma differently; a few effectively, but for most, our focus and reasoning will be lost. A person that makes billion dollar decisions on a daily basis has refined that skill through training and experience. That ability does not mean they can withstand the stress and trauma of in-crisis decision making. While many people believe they are invincible and would gladly say ‘sure, I’ll take the job’, be very careful. Your organization should not be looking for a volunteer to be your in-crisis decision maker; unless of course you are simply looking for someone to blame when things go horribly wrong!

In a crisis, virtually every employee, regardless of position and role will have four personal priorities. To think or expect differently is simply wishful thinking. These are:

1. Their own personal safety,
2. The safety and well-being of their families,
3. The safety of close friends / fellow employees,
4. Their employer and their in-crisis role.

The event, its impact, resulting stress and actions based on the above could eliminate anyone’s availability or effectiveness. The risk associated with a reliance on a single individual becomes an immediate single point of failure.

Team decision making

A large number of action steps will be required in a crisis; performed by multiple functions / departments and influenced by an even larger number of people. The challenge is to quickly and accurately determine which decisions and actions must be the focus of the CRT discussions. Actions that will be discussed, considered, approved, discarded or postponed will include:

* Actions which must be taken now.

* Actions which require the approval of the crisis management team; therefore pending.

* Action alternatives which are dependent on the outcome of other actions.

* Actions which are performed external to the organization where you have little or no influence as to their outcome.

* Actions which will be taken, but you are unsure as to when.

* Actions that may be taken depending on how the event or threat unfolds.

Should all in-crisis decisions really be made by a team of people? The answer is definitely NO. The previous part of this article series discussed the most competent makeup of a crisis response team; each member representing a critical response group (department) that for the most part exist in the majority of organizations.

These team members are experts in their respective fields (i.e. security, human resources, public affairs, etc.). As such, the crisis response team (CRT) will rely on their individual knowledge, skills and experience to determine what actions their area of responsibility must take in a crisis situation.

Perhaps a short dissertation on the in-crisis process will better illustrate in-crisis decision making, the role of the CRT and where and how ‘majority rules decision making’ comes into play.

1. Once an event has occurred or a threat is imminent, your crisis response team will meet either by way of a conference call or a meeting in the crisis command center.

At this time, the priority is to conduct a ‘situational assessment’:

* Collect facts on the event that has occurred or the imminent threat,
* Review the actions taken to-date by each of the ‘utility’ groups and external agencies,
* Assess any current impact on employees,
* Assess any current impact on the organization’s brand image,
* Assess any current impact on general operations of the organization,
* Assess the probability of the event escalating or deescalating in the short term.

Based on the above assessment the crisis response team must first decide, by majority vote, whether or not the situation will be declared as a ‘crisis’ and therefore under the management and control of the crisis response team or; the situation will be classified as an ‘incident’ and as such, the response coordinated by the respective ‘utility groups’. Determining whether or not a threat or event is an actual crisis is obviously a vital process and a great candidate for future discussion.

2. In our scenario let’s assume the CRT did declare the situation a crisis. The focus now becomes ‘what actions must be taken, by whom and when’; as well as communicating the ‘situational assessment’ and immediate action plan to various stakeholders within the organization, including; the crisis management team (executive management), business leaders, general management and appropriate information to employees. Review the previous article for a further understanding of CRT / CMT in-crisis roles and responsibilities.

Of importance during the in-crisis process is the role of the CRT team leader. He or she, like all other members of the team, has one vote when voting situations occur. The role of team leader is one of coordination, time management, ensuring operational compliance with in-crisis policies and standards and functioning as the primary interface to the CMT.

3. Focusing on next actions steps, each CRT member will provide what they believe the next steps will be from their operational perspective. Any Team member can question any recommendation being made to ensure it is well understood and in-line with the mandate and priorities of the crisis management program; those being life safety, protection of the brand image and minimizing operational disruption.

Generally speaking, the CRT members only vote on recommendations being put forward by each member of the team when there is disagreement within the team. The approved actions are incorporated into an event status report for subsequent distribution to team members and key stakeholders.

4. As the event unfolds, the CRT will conduct regular meetings to reassess the situation, its impact, actions taken and next steps; regularly issuing event status reports to ensure all stakeholders are equally in receipt of current information. This iterative process will continue until the CRT declares the crisis has ended.

While the above represents a summary of what would be an ‘in-crisis process’, it does highlight the fact that majority rules decision making is a tool available to the CRT as and when required to ensure all required actions are taken and poor or untimely decision are averted.

Benefits of majority rules decision making:

* A safeguard against emotionally driven or politically motivated actions on the part of individuals,

* Ensures complete compliance with the priority of crisis management (life safety of employees, contractors and on-site guests),

* Eliminates the unpredictability of actions caused by individual stress and trauma,

* Draws on the knowledge and experience of many, versus limited reasoning capability of an individual,

* Strength in numbers allows the team to suppress well-intentioned political interference,

* Ensures the team remains focused on the evolving and changing impact of a threat or event,

* Acts as a counter-balance to the antics of bullies intent on forcing their views and opinions on others,

* Under the auspices of the authority to act (see part two of this series) no individual can be held responsible or liable for the decisions and actions of the team.

Operational considerations and success factors

In-crisis decision making can be extremely challenging. Below are several points that reinforce why team majority rules decision making should be the preferred approach.

* Let’s first make it perfectly clear that a crisis management program does not change your organization’s first responders’ responsibilities in a crisis. When something goes wrong various functions / departments respond accordingly. Corporate security, facilities management, public affairs, human resources and others will all respond to an event as defined by their role, their operational mandate. As an example; if a disgruntled employee returns to the office with an automatic weapon, kills eight employees and holds several others hostage; obviously the police are called and your corporate security department will cordon-off the immediate area and probably evacuate the event floor. The immediate actions taken by corporate security are what is expected of them; they understand that role and they will react accordingly. Under no circumstance would corporate security in this scenario first go to the crisis response team for approval of their initial actions.

* It is the role of the CRT to determine what actions are required, by whom and when they will be performed. The CRT collectively does not act on the decisions made. As an example, the CRT may determine that it is necessary to issue an employee communication informing them of the event, its impact on operations and possibly short term instructions. The CRT does not write or approve the actual communication; it ensures that the public affairs member on the team and their department have the most current information on which to base the content, write and issue the communications.

* As human beings we function in a serial mode, one thought at a time. In quiet times it appears we are capable of more, of multi-tasking, even though we are not. In a stressful situation where a great deal is happening around us, our thought processing changes. Resulting confusion and delays in processing information can result in errors in analysis and decision making. A simple but effective example is when you are driving your car; you hit an icy patch on the highway, your vehicle begins to slide and you immediately slam on the brakes. That action causes the vehicle to spin uncontrollably, often resulting in personal injury and damage. In hindsight we know we should not have slammed on the brakes, but by then it is too late. In-crisis decision making parallels this example quite well; too much information being thrown at us in rapid succession cannot be effectively processed; errors in judgement and decision making can result.

* All members of the CRT will view an event or threat differently; from their perspective (which is based on their individual area of responsibility, experience and background). It is vital to evaluate every opinion or suggestion; each has merit and value. If you had a single decision maker your actions would be based on the opinion of only one person. You also have an obligation to voice your opinion. Nonetheless, every person on the team is there because they have specific expertise that will be required. It is necessary to listen to the experts in a given field. As an example; if the human resources member of the team recommends that trauma counselling begin immediately, you probably should not strongly debate the issue even if you personally do not understand the need.

* 90 percent of actions to be taken will be somewhat obvious, requiring very little discussion or debate. It is the other 10 percent of decisions that must be managed and concluded in a timely manner. Discuss debate and even argue if necessary, but limit the time allocated before a vote is taken and proceed accordingly. If a vote is tied or even close, it would imply further discussion should ensue. Alternatively, the decision can be left to the crisis management team or in a life-threatening situation; the CRT team leader can cast the deciding vote (however reluctant they may be to do so).

* While the CRT (under the ‘authority to act’) has the authority to take any action necessary in a life-threatening situation, the crisis management team (CMT) in reality is the highest level decision making authority and can amend, reverse or approve the recommendations / action plan of the CRT. The CMT will, in virtually all situations, recognize the expertise of the CRT and approve its decisions. Further, your organization’s most senior executive (your CEO) will always retain the ultimate decision making authority (over the CRT and CMT), but will rarely if ever apply it. Awareness and training are the critical success factors for executive management.

Majority rules decision making can be summed up very simply. If six of the eight people on your crisis response team believe the organization should ‘turn right’, one isn’t sure and one believes you should ‘turn left’; you had better ‘turn right’. Now, if the sole person who said ‘turn left’ is the highest titled person on the team, should he or she have the authority to over-ride the recommendation of the team’s majority? The answer is a simple ‘no’.

Risk management techniques teach us to mitigate risk; attempt where possible to prevent events or actions that can have severe consequences to people and the organization. In-crisis decision making is such a risk and can only be mitigated through team and majority rules decision making.

This was scheduled to be the final article in this series. However, a large number of comments, questions and requests for additional information have been received, which will be responded to in two further articles.

Author:  Dennis C. Hamilton, Hon FBCI, is the president of Crisis Response Planning Corporation, an internationally recognized emergency management consulting services company. For over 20 years Dennis has been dedicated to the discipline of crisis management, earning the recognition and reputation as one of North America’s foremost practitioners and advisors to businesses in all primary industries. Dennis can be reached at 416-500-5517 or

CRPC Copyright 2010

Read the previous articles in this series:

1) In-crisis decision making: resolving the dilemma

2) In-crisis decision making: the authority to act

3) In-crisis decision making: Communicate or expect the worse

4) In-crisis decision making: ‘let them do their job’


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•Date: 16th April 2010 • Region: US/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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