When your business is experiencing change, it's easy to become overwhelmed and focus on the potential negative outcomes of your executive decisions. One mindset you can try to emulate is that of an emergency disaster responder, who has to keep their head in the game when hundreds or thousands of people's lives depend on them.
How do those responders remain calm and engaged—and how can you do the same when you're under pressure to make the right business decisions?
Dr. Dan Diamond, M.D., a Washington-based family physician who has responded to many major disasters over the last 30 years, says the biggest mistake in a disaster response—as well as in any high-pressure leadership situation—is “facing the wrong direction."
“When teams face the wrong direction, at the very core, it derails them," he says. “When we go into a disaster zone, my focus is not on what we're going to do about all the bad, broken stuff, but what we can do to turn things around."
Diamond, who speaks internationally about building resilient organizations in high-pressure situations, says that before a leader can start prioritizing decisions, it's important to come into the situation with the right mindset. But often times, leaders focus on troubleshooting problems instead of working on the goals they want to achieve.
“Do you focus on the negative problem, or do you focus on the positive outcome that you want? The difference between those two impacts where you go," he says. “In a disaster, if you focus on the negative problem, you're not going to get very far."
Looking at the Whole Picture
Currently a part-time urgent-care physician in Bremerton, Washington, Diamond was the medical triage unit director for Hurricane Katrina, as well as the medical director for the first team responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. While his role is not to triage patients but rather to manage the team's operation and response, the patient-triage system can be applied to prioritizing executive business decisions.
“As an incident commander, I need to keep my team safe and make sure the system works," he says. “In the same way, executives can't get so tangled with one department or aspect that they can't function and they lose track of the big picture."
Whether you're prioritizing decisions because of a major change like a merger, or you're creating a disaster risk-management plan for your business, Diamond says that thinking in “big picture" mode means deciding how to move people and resources in the right direction and rallying your team and other resources to support the positive outcomes that you want.
Using the Four-Color Triage System
Disaster responders often only have seconds to triage their patients. One technique for prioritizing needs is a color-coded system, based on predetermined criteria:
- Red: patients who are sick and need immediate attention. In your business, these would be the people or resources (including financial) most at risk, and decisions involving this category are your highest priority.
- Yellow: patients who are sick but not as severely as the “reds." In an organizational change or enterprise risk management scenario, these are the problems that are important to deal with but can wait because the “reds" are higher priority.
- Green: patients who can walk. When you're triaging decisions, “greens" would be any systems that are fully functioning and don't need attention.
- Black: patients who will die, no matter what the medical responders do. In your organization, this category encompasses consequences or results that you can't change, no matter what you do.
The criteria used to triage your business decisions will depend on individual scenarios, but the approach is the same. Once you've prioritized all the decisions that you need to make, based on their impact on the overall outcome, you can start by addressing those in the red group, then the yellow.
The black category is the most difficult one for disaster teams because in their daily work, medical personnel are trained to deal with the most-critical patients first. In a disaster, however, responders have to proceed based on best outcomes for the biggest group.
“The motivation is, how can I provide the most good for the most people? That means in a disaster, I have to set aside the 'blacks,' or the 'reds' will die," Diamond says.
In business, the black category could be challenging for leaders as well, because it may entail major negative consequences, like layoffs. Diamond says that low priority doesn't necessarily mean you ignore that category completely. For example, you still need to face layoffs with compassion, otherwise overall morale will suffer. But it's important to keep in mind that you can't change that outcome, so it's the “red patients" who need the most attention.
Approaching High-Pressure Situations With the Right Mindset
Besides facing the right direction, leaders need to approach high-pressure situations as givers, not takers, Diamond says. That means keeping the focus not only on the positive outcome but also on supporting the team who's doing the ground work.
Executives can't get so tangled with one department or aspect that they can't function and they lose track of the big picture.
—Dan Diamond, M.D., physician and leadership expert
“I come to the disaster, see what's going on, come up with priorities, and come up with a solution to move myself and my team in the right direction—as opposed to away from the bad direction—then I rally my team," he says. “Sometimes, I get it wrong and make it worse before making it better. But because I take ownership at the highest level and own [the decisions], we can move on to try something else."
When leaders don't take ownership and don't become givers, Diamond says, the best triage process will fail.
“What separates people in the disaster world who do the best work is that they don't make it about them," he says. “As a leader, do you show up in a high-pressure situation as a taker, or a giver?"
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