Reactive Decision Making

Making Good Decisions Under Pressure

Don't panic!

© iStockphoto/H-Gall

People tend to make decisions reactively when confronted with emergency situations or when a disaster unfolds.

In these circumstances, the best decisions tend to be those that have been thought-through and rehearsed ahead of time, a good example being use of a pre-prepared evacuation plan when the office catches on fire.

The normal decision-making process generally involves:

  1. Defining the problem.
  2. Collecting necessary information.
  3. Developing options.
  4. Devising a plan.
  5. Executing.
  6. Following-up.

However reactive decision-making is, well, reactive. Because of this, there's not usually time to execute this full decision-making process, meaning that it's all-too-easy to make a bad decision when under pressure.

What this means is that actions to be taken in an emergency should be carefully planned for beforehand so that you can act appropriately when an event occurs. This may include, for example, devising contingency plans for what to do when a supplier ships poor quality goods when you are on a very tight deadline, or planning how to get essential systems back online if your office premises are burgled and computers are stolen.

Planning for Exceptional Reactive Decision Making

When doing this, the first step is to look at the risks you face and determine if they have a high or low probability of occurring.

You can use a Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM) to do this. To create a Risk Assessment Matrix, draw a graph, matrix or simple table with a vertical axis marked as "Consequences" and a horizontal axis marked as "Probability".

Use a simple scale of 0 (very small) to 5 (very large). "Consequences" are credible potential worst-case scenarios that may develop. "Probabilities" are your best assessments of the likelihoods that individual consequences will occur.

Now brainstorm the possible consequences to which you're exposed, and then assess the risk of each consequence occurring. Where possible, base these assessment of risk on real-world evidence and experience.

Then plot these on the RAM. You'll find that that as you do this, your contingency planning priorities quickly become clear.

Keep in mind that using a Risk Assessment Matrix is not an exact science: What it is is a useful visual tool for looking at the relative importance of each risk. This will allow for better planning and optimal outcomes when reactive decision-making must be relied on.

But what to do when forced to make a reactive decision without having a plan in place? When this is the case, there is not time to complete a thorough RAM. Such a decision must be quickly made using appropriate reasoning, based on the best possible outcome.

Making Unexpected Decisions Under Pressure

For instance, a team leader unexpectedly walks off the job in the midst of the company's largest project, jeopardizing the project's outcome and negatively impacting other areas in which he or she is involved. Obviously, work must go on. This is when it is important to make a quick reactive decision based on perceived risks and possible consequences.

In such a case, it may be appropriate to gather the team and re-assign certain tasks so that everyone involved is taking up some of the responsibility left by the departing team leader. Or, perhaps appointing a new team leader is the best reactive decision to make. Whatever the decision, make sure to make it based on what's best for all involved, while remaining mindful of the larger picture, i.e. possible risks and consequences. Here it's often not possible to achieve a perfect outcome – what you're trying to do is control damage as best you can.


Because reactive decision-making is based so much on people's individual experiences, decisions made may vary from person to person.

Also, because reactive decisions are often needed when emergencies occur, these can be some of the most difficult but important decisions one can make.

Key Points

A good manager or team leader will have plans in place for many situations that call for reactive decision-making, recognizing that there will not be time to assess and weigh the risks, consequences and necessary outcomes when a crisis occurs.

When devising such plans, drawing up a Risk Assessment Matrix can help you quickly spot and communicate the most important contingencies to prepare for.

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Comment (1)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Most of us have probably had to make a reactive decision at one time or another. Visualising yourself being calm and in control even in an emergency situation, may help you to make better decisions. One area where extra care needs to be exercised is when we have to make decisions regarding people - whether to hire of fire or discipline etc. Never make these decisions while you are angry - think it through and make decisions that will be good for today but also good for the future.

    Kind regards

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