Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Caught In the Middle

Have you had moments during your social isolation where you have experienced a tinge of anxiety that you just can't get rid of? Something just doesn't add up. You are getting mixed messages from health care professionals and political leaders regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. You are trying to respond with social responsibility but mixed messages have you confused and caught in the middle of a sensemaking conundrum.

Most of us are experiencing what is called "cognitive dissonance." According to Google, cognitive dissonance is "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change."

National and community leaders are struggling with COVID-19 response. Pressure to conform is mounting but mixed messages are leaving us ill-prepared and anxious.
  • Do we close schools or do we leave them open?
  • Why is one district in my are closed and another open?
  • Do we have that musical festival or not?
  • Do we have that face-to-face meeting or go virtual?
  • Why is this shelter in place different from the wildland fire response?
  • Do I buy that package of toilet paper or leave it for someone else?
These are challenging times. Leaders with command presence are needed to keep others calm and bring about the greatest unity of effort since 9/11, if not since the Great Depression. We can and will get through this, but we need leaders and consistent messages and plans.

I have no doubts that the wildland fire service will be asked to answer the call to service. Whatever that looks like, we will be ready to respond. Are you and your family ready to respond if asked? What is your plan?

On behalf of the NWCG Leadership Committee, we wish good health for you and yours in the coming weeks and months. We thank all those who will lead our nation through this time in history. Together we can make a difference. Please care for one another during this difficult time.

Here is a blog I wrote a few years ago about decision making and cognitive dissonance.

Making Sound and Timely Decisions

To make sound and timely decisions, fire leaders assess the situation, seek out relevant information, weigh options, make judgments, and initiate action as required to create a positive outcome within inevitable time constraints.

The cornerstone of good decision making is good situation awareness. Leaders can increase their decision space by attaining and maintaining good situation awareness. Decision space is simply the amount of time that a decision maker has for considering options before reaching a required decision point.

Leaders can optimize their decision space by using time efficiently. Seeking advance information in new situations or utilizing standard operating procedures for routine tasks are examples of techniques that make good use of available time.

In the wildland fire environment, decisions have serious consequences and often can have life-or-death implications for others. With so much on the line, we have a responsibility to understand the decision-making process—the components, the flow, the effect of time—and to develop the skills and confidence that enables us to make the best decision possible with the information and time available.

Situation Awareness is depicted as a cycle because the situation and people’s perceptions are constantly changing. This internal cycle continues as long as people are awake.

Everyone starts with an initial perception of any given situation and then continuously updates it with new information. People gather information through both observation, which includes input from the senses, and communication, which includes face-to-face conversation, written communication, and radio or telephone exchanges.

Simply paying attention is an important part of maintaining good situation awareness, but even more important is determining what to pay attention to. All perceptions are subject to filtering and focusing: people constantly filter information and shift focus. People also produce a lot of internal inputs such as thoughts about what to do next, stress, memories of similar experiences, fear. Those with more experience in an environment often can more easily filter out distractions and unimportant details and focus on the most salient information. (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, pp. 30-31)

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
So how difficult it is to attain and maintain situation awareness? How does our body and its senses play into decision making?

We challenge you to see "dig a little deeper" into the concept of cognitive dissonance and see your your senses may be tricking you into a false sense of security and/or reality.

Watch Ash Donaldson's TEDxCanberra video on cognitive dissonance and ask yourself the following questions:
  • What limitations does cognitive dissonance have on maintaining situation awareness?
  • Are you a victim of cognitive dissonance?
  • What negative behaviors are you rationalizing?

Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Committee. The expressions are those of the author.

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