Rational Decision-Making in Times of Crisis


The last two months have presented every business – indeed, every individual – with unprecedented personal and professional decision-making challenges. Whether we recognize it or not, we have all been carrying the burden of crisis-time decision-making on a daily basis for some time now. Inundated with information from our peers, the media, and our communities about the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 into seemingly every aspect of our normal lives, what used to feel like small decisions now feel bigger, heavier, and more difficult. And now, as our minds begin to shift to what the next phase of this pandemic might look like and questions about return-to-normal timelines, the need for rational decision-making is all the more necessary. 

But, when the going gets tough, the tough get rational. As we all collectively navigate these difficult times, and the difficult decisions that lie ahead, here are some tips for calm, critical, and rational thinking in the face of a crisis that we can all adopt. 

Tips for Rational Decision-Making

Tip 1: Identify your Emotional Triggers

A cool head when all around you are losing theirs is the cornerstone of rational decision-making in a time of crisis. So, a great way of identifying where biases might be clouding your decision-making faculties is to consider those topics and beliefs that leave you emotionally triggered and in a state of anger, excitement, fear or sadness.

Tip 2: Check your Assumptions

Following on from the first tip: learn to check your assumptions. As assumptions are often a core part of our identity, and challenging them can be extremely hard. Take an honest inventory with yourself on the assumptions you rely on most to support your personal worldview, and challenge them. Remember, these are unprecedented times. So, forgive yourself and those around you for having the wrong first (or second, or third) gut reaction, and learn to quickly course-correct instead. 

Tip 3: Don’t be a Sucker

The old poker player’s dictum, ‘If you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you’, will serve you in good stead in your efforts to stay rational: always consider how others may stand to benefit from the decisions they make in response to a crisis and consider how their personal ambitions, needs, or desires might influence their approach and rhetoric. Also consider the influence of hidden stakeholders, and the fluency that these actors might have in the tools and techniques of persuasion and influencing the decisions of others. 

Tip 4: Embrace Solitude

Ungluing yourself from TV news and social media whilst giving yourself a little bit of space from your peers allows you room to think independently. In turn, independent thinking allows you to question commonly held beliefs and seek out alternative sources of information. If you can, try to read academic, peer-reviewed articles about subjects that interest you, and learn about decision-making best-practice from the pros. You will gradually become better at spotting the logic gaps and start to develop your own well researched and robust opinions.

Tip 5: Nurture Your Inner Stoic

In times of madness, it is easy to get swamped by stress, which in turn makes you more reactive. Stay rational and calm and keep your inner lizard at bay by thinking like a stoic:

  • Confront your demons

Past trauma makes it hard to be rational.

  • Look after yourself

Rest, nutrition and exercise help you stay calm.

  • Focus on the things under your control

Figure out what is exclusively your domain, and dedicate as much energy as possible to that.

  • Reduce your focus on things you can’t control

Your past, your future, and other people’s behavior and opinions are out of your direct control, so dedicate as little energy as possible to these.

Now, bring that rational thinking to work

Businesses of all kinds are facing similar tough decisions about what to do next, and the ability to effectively navigate crisis-time decision-making can be ‘make or break.’ The tips provided above can help you become a voice of reason for your team, whether you are leading it or not, and help begin to pave a clearer path toward doing the next right thing.  Borrowing from a recent McKinsey & Co. article, consider asking your team the following questions:

  • What is most important right now?

  • What might we be missing?

  • How might things unfold from here?

  • What can influence now that could pay off later?


Approaching critical questions like these with a rational, clear head can have a profound impact, especially when uncertainty – even panic – are reigning supreme. Now is the time to enact some hypervigilance against our natural tendencies that lead us to forego rationality in response to unprecedented times. I hope the simple tips provided here can help, and perhaps even start a discourse with those around you – be that at the (virtual) conference table or the dinner table. 


To read the complete series: ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Rational: Overcoming Decision-Making Biases in a Crisis,” click here