How to improve your decision-making in uncertainty

]In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Theodore Roosevelt. [

Constant process of managing uncertainties triggers crisis state in many of us as we feel added pressure to respond or react. Uncertainty influences our personal and professional decision making where we are forced to make decisions involving risk where the consequences of any action we take are uncertain due to unforeseeable events. Uncertainty often changes our decision making strategies, leading to different choices than we would make without such pressure. But the level of stress, we experience in crisis is relative to influencing factors such as our personality, experiences, and the circumstances we are in.

In most aspects of our life, we make decisions based on the information available to us which is unlike in a crisis or uncertain situations where we either have too much information that is overwhelming to deal with or too little that makes us insecure. Because of which, we approach decisions differently. We begin to distrust our intuitions, get impulsive and give into negative emotional states like anxiety, fear, depression or anger.

It is easy during a crisis to react and overreact emotionally to the unfolding events and circumstances. As a result, we give into different assumptions, biases, or imperfect information or others’ opinions. Though crisis by definition is unexpected, effective leaders can and should prepare for them and have action plans in place for various potential risks. It is important to find clarity to work through the chaotic and difficult circumstances by making right choices and decisive action. There are several psychological reasons why we may find decision-making difficult in crisis.


Our brains often crave certainty and avoids uncertainty. Certainty is easy, safe and effortless as it takes away the cognitive load that would otherwise overwhelm us. Uncertainty and unfamiliar situation, on the other hand, requires more of our attention and effort. A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong ‘threat’ or ‘alert’ response, something to be avoided. As a result, the ability to focus on other issues diminishes and clouds our judgment and slows down our ability to think clearly. Certainty on the other hand feels rewarding, and we tend to steer towards it as we want to make sure that the things we want to happen actually do happen and that is exactly where our need for certainty begins.

Thus, our “need to know” can become the foundation for every choice that we make and affects how we face life, approach our work, and maintain relationships. Sometimes these decisions work out great. But often it also leads to missing new opportunities, stifles our creativity and hinders progress. Also, we often make decisions to reduce uncertainty about a situation, but it is important to remember that seldom are decisions made with absolute certainty because complete knowledge of the alternatives is not possible always. Even the simplest decisions carry some level of uncertainty. So, it is important to acknowledge that there is some degree of uncertainty in almost every decision we make.

What affects our decision-making process during uncertainty

Good and effective decision-making is always a challenge in times of crisis. Some of the factors that come in the way of decision-making-process include,

Changing circumstances or making decisions with imperfect information. Decision-making under uncertainty is often made worse than it really is because of changing circumstances and the need for the overwhelming volume of timely decisions to be made with little or no information that is required. The lack of control makes us more anxious and anxiety clouds our judgement and it’s a kind of vicious cycle.

Cognitive biases. Uncertainty leads to various biases like confirmation bias where we tend to select the facts and information that supports or confirm initial interpretation and conclusion.

Changes in our emotional state. Obvious emotions of fear and anxiety arise whenever we come cross things that makes us feel insecure. Psychologists suggest that, in the face of a crisis, our mental state tends to move from being restful to increased anxiety, worry and anger. The fatigue that comes with a period of prolonged crisis only heighten the level of emotion. A change in our emotional state affects the way we make judgement and reduces effectiveness of our decisions.

Frequency of making decisions. We call for faster decisions because we are programmed to respond faster to threats than opportunities, even though urgency may help, however it makes us miss the long-term thinking as we base our decisions more on our emotions where the first reasonable option is selected to manage the negative emotion, with little or no thought given to the optimum approach.

Stress reduces thinking power. Worrying uses up valuable mental resources resulting in less thinking capacity to solve a crisis. Our problem-solving process reduces when we are distracted by the anxiety. Concentrating on priority information can provide a necessary and helpful focus. Too often, it can however lead to myopic thinking which may miss the bigger picture.

Fear from uncertainty. If you can’t see consciously how you are responding to a crisis, then you cannot think clearly about your options. If you are locked in fear, your ability to develop creative solutions gets limited. One way to manage your decision-making process into manage your own attention and emotional responses and understanding how those responses influence your decisions.

We often like to think our decisions are rational and that we logically considered all possible options. But in reality, we are both rational and emotional beings in everything that we do including our decision-making. Also, amid the crisis, it can be tempting to think of only the ‘here and now,’ but uncertainty often requires you to make important decisions not only regarding short-term but also long-term.

How to improve your decision-making in uncertainty?

In order to optimise your decisions during crisis, you should take stock of your emotions, how you think, act so as to maintain a non-judgmental attitude towards yourself when you do it. When the situation you are facing is new, uncertainty is higher than under normal circumstances. Less time and reaction have to be quick. And if you are trying to make the decisions based on the external environment, you lack control and the balance gets off. So, your ability to manage yourself in this process to stay grounded and clear in a situation becomes important. However, since our emotional states are often based on our subjective interpretation, we can always put things into proper perspective to regain more control on our decision-making process.

Here are some perspectives to help you regain control to optimise your crisis decision-making.

Manage your emotions

A crisis can quickly become upsetting and when dealing with your emotions, it’s not always easy to take responsibility for stressful issues. Certain times can be stressful to the point of having physical impact, such as fatigue, irritability and anxious. Developing awareness of your most dominant emotions can help you regain control over self.

Rank your ambient emotions on a scale of one to ten. Stress about making financial decisions, fear of cost cutting needed to survive, worry about the health and staying safe, fear of missing out on growth opportunities and so on. Hiding away or taking the hunker down approach towards your dominant emotions often leads to narrow thinking. Instead seek to communicate with others involved and share with your colleagues your primary ambient emotion.

Social support reduces stress, keeps issues in context and improves your thinking process. Ask whether any of your peers are feeling the same and know how the emotion is affecting how they think and act. Discover insights from your peers and accept that you are not alone.

Recognising how your emotions will skew your thinking can help you in making right decisions during crisis. For instance, If fear is your dominant emotion, you may be inclined towards being risk-averse, if sadness is your dominant emotion, you may be inclined to seek immediate gratification. Knowing how your primary ambient emotion affects your ability to make decisions can free your rational part of your mind. Consider possible solutions, evaluate their costs and benefits, pick the best options, and gather the resources needed to turn your decisions into tangible results.

Evaluate the degree of uncertainty of your decision

It is important to acknowledge that there is some degree of uncertainty in almost every decision we make. Instead of letting your insecurities make you risk averse, estimate the negative and positive consequences of the risk or uncertainty surrounding your decision. Focus on one decision at a time in the uncertain context. The outcome of every decision you make provides feedback on your decision-making process. Acknowledge your own state of knowledge. It’s okay if that knowledge is limited, make peace with not knowing. However, when you are making decisions under uncertainty, you inherently have limited information to work with, and there are a number of potential outcomes, each with different probabilities. Thinking about all possible outcomes, estimating the probability of each outcome and making a decision accordingly improves your decision quality.

Write down the context and uncertainty surrounding your decision corresponding to the information available, parameters and their predictability. Assign a predictability score for what you know based on the information you have and parameters you need to consider. If you have more information and not many parameters, it will be easy to predict your outcomes. On the other hand, if you have very little data and more parameters, your outcomes will be difficult to predict. Higher the predictability and low uncertainty and vice versa.

Ask yourself, How much information do you have in helping you navigate this uncertainty? How many parameters will you need? Does all the information you have is accurate? What are the alternatives? Are there any details you might be missing? Thinking in terms of probability motivates you to think about all possible outcomes.

Avoid the pit falls of cognitive bias

When facing uncertainty in decisions-making, we often rely on cognitive biases that bypass conscious deliberate thinking. We make decisions based on our beliefs that we develop as a result of the available information. Instead of changing our beliefs to fit into new information, we do the opposite, we change our interpretation of the information to fit our beliefs.

Cognitive biases lead to inaccurate thinking patterns. For instance, a confirmative bias where one tends to look for and attend to information that confirms one’s beliefs, while ignoring the information that challenges their beliefs. A loss aversion bias can push you to choose the least expected option. This leads to missing the important information that you need to make an effective decision. Similarly, if you have an overly connection between outcomes and decisions, you might give into hindsight bias. Or binary thinking or thinking only in terms black/white or all-or-nothing approach gets you locked into only two outcomes and limits your ability to explore other possibilities.Therefore, it’s important to improve our beliefs if we want to make better decisions.

To overcome your bias, be critical of your beliefs. Ask yourself, Why might my belief not be true? What other evidence might be out there bearing on my belief? What are the reasons someone else could have a different belief and why might they be right instead of me? This encourages you to examine what you do and don’t know and can help you with thinking outside the box leading you to more definitive outcomes. Instead of thinking as all-or-nothing , try to catch al the shades of grey in between. Don’t hinge on whether you are right or wrong but on how well you can incorporate new information to estimate of how accurate your beliefs are.

Set clear goals

It is important to be realistic about what can be achieved and not be overly ambitious. The process of setting goals also helps you to stick to objectives and prioritise the right issues during crisis or an uncertainty. Have a common goal if you are working with a team. Ask yourself, What are the goals of making this decision? What problem does it need to solve at its core? Understand the problems you are solving and the meaning of the decisions to be made.

Define your objective, a goal and a context before acting on it. Review your options to reach the best solutions you do in normal times. Stay flexible and responsive in case things change. Ask yourself, Am i missing the big picture? What is important right now if i have to make a decision? What measures could i take now that might pay off later?

The focus of decision-making in times of crisis is managing the unexpected and staying flexible makes it possible to change your direction if necessary. Uncertainty puts not only your ability to make decision to the test, but also your ability to adapt. When faced with too little, too much or contradictory information, you may have to let go of things you cannot control and accept the uncertainty and risks involved in making decision. It’s better to set clear and realistic goals by having an understanding of the situation. Involve others in decision-making process and choose people you want to surround yourself. Have the right communication strategies in place to work towards set objectives.

Act on your decisions

Figuring out which action is right can be overwhelming, especially in complex, ambiguous and changing situations that can lead to inaction. Most of us don’t recognise what it means to make a real decision. A real decision requires action. There is a difference between choice and decision. Choosing is based on rational criteria to power your decision-making, whereas deciding is accepting the uncertainty and the risk tied to it. We don’t realise the force of change that committed decisions creates. Instead of stating preferences or decisions, we keep stating preferences. Making decisions means committing to achieving a result, and then cutting yourself off from any other possibility. It’s a tool you can use in any moment to change your life. The moment you make a new decision, you set in motion a new cause, effect, direction, and destination for your personal or professional life.

A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided. A good definition for a decision is information acted upon. The outcomes of your decision acts as a feedback for making more. So, make decisions based objectivity, facts and logic. Instead of getting pulled in different directions, turn onwards and centre yourself to tap into your inner resourcefulness that knows exactly what to do. Align them with your goals and values. Focusing on your actions can help bring clarity in the decision-making process.

Focus on your perspective

When you face uncertainty in your decisions-making, your automatic tendency is to act in accordance with what others say. But focusing on your perspective is important because no one can understand the situation you are facing as well as you do. Seeking information or advice from others is helpful in some situations, but it can also be sometimes overwhelming. Most likely you will doubt yourself and conform to others’ opinion, even though you wee initially right. Always focus on your initial opinion when you feel swayed toward another option in talking to others. Ask yourself, Do i consider that option because of others? Would i consider that option if it wasn’t for others? Do i feel that it is good option in general sense on an emotional level? Taking personal responsibility of your decision and focusing on the problem is more helpful.

Avoid situations that have a negative impact on making your decisions. You can choose to make the decision by yourself or involve others depending on what makes you comfortable. Choose your place, time and plan of action. You can willingly change some aspects of the situation that you are already in. Identify what is the negative aspect of the situation that needs to be changed by asking yourself, What aspects trigger negative emotional response? What situational elements make me feel bad or depleted? modifying the specific aspects help you gain control that is often compromised during crisis decision-making.

Questions for self-reflection

How often do you find yourself overwhelmed with your decisions in uncertain situations?

How do you adapt your approach in uncertainty to maintain foresight and effectiveness?

Do you prepare yourself for crisis decision-making?

What is your approach to your decision-making in crisis?

What are your cognitive decision-making biases?

How do you know if your decisions get you the results you expect— Do you keep track of the decisions you are making and your current results to the past decisions you have made?

Is your decision-making process consistent? Do you hold yourself accountable for the decisions you make at all times? Where are your decisions falling short? Do you focus on long-term growth or short-term solutions when it comes to your decisions?

How often do you base your decisions on black and white or all-or-nothing thinking? Do you often confirm to your beliefs while making decisions?

*Reflect on these questions to improve your decisions in uncertainty *

To conclude,

In every situation, we always have a degree of control and we can always change that process as well as the outcomes and so is true in uncertainty. Even though there will be always some aspects of a crisis that cannot be changed or within our control, but you can always focus and move on to things that you can exert your influence on. By recognising the effects of how we think, feel and act, we can take measures to address the likely flaws in our crisis decision-making process. Apply the above perspectives to improve your approach to make more effective decisions. Having control over decision-related situations can help ease the negative outcomes of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security

John Allen Paulos

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