Decision Making Process

May 20, 2020 | Anxiety, leadership

When life is calm and things are working, almost anybody can pass themselves off as a good leader. The true essense of a leader shows up when a crisis hits. In the past 3 months, we have seen a wide gamut of leadership abilities as the country faced the virus pandemic from Wuhan.

Listening to the pundits on T.V or reading any newspaper article, one could easily come to the conclusion the leaders guiding us out of the pandemic from Wuhan use ‘science and data’ for their decision making process. They then tell us that regardless of the decision, we need to view it as wise. I disagree. The leaders are either emotionally reacting to the situation or are basing decisions on their level of differentiation of self.

Leadership Abilities

In a previous blog, Anxiety ruins Leadership, I explored how people respond to anxiety. There are two types of anxiety. Situational anxiety and chronic anxiety. When the situation calls for it, such as instinctively stepping out of the way of an on coming car, anxiety can be extremely helpful. In chronic anxiety, the person spends an enormous amount of energy worrying that a car might come by and danger may happen. Chronic anxiety is never productive. Here is an excellent article on the how our brains respond to anxiety.

Not all leaders react out of anxiety when stress hits. There are leaders who have developed a greater level of differentiation of self (DoS). DoS is the ability to emotionally regulate oneself during times of stress and anxiety, and remain connected to the people around them. These are the people who continue using the intellectual system based in the prefrontal cortex and do not retreat to the emotional system found in the reptilian brain.

Emotionally Reactive Decisions VS Differentiation of Self Decisions

People make emotionally reactive decisions when they panic about what may happen, how bad things may get, or straight out of the fear about not knowing what to do. These decisions are based in the lizard brain which also houses the freeze, flight, or fight response. Humans share this lizard brain with all creatures and this is the portion of the brain that instinctively propels people out of the way of a speeding car.

Emotionally reactive decisions are made from the lizard part of the brain. They can be seen as confusing, conflicting, or nonsensical. These decisions perpetuate fear. After the situational fear is gone, these decisions just don’t make sense.

As people are able to lower their emotional reactivity, they are able to increase their DoS. This occurs when the person sets the anxiety aside, and utilizes the prefrontal cortex. Humans are the only creatures with a prefrontal cortex. This is the portion of the brain that provides humans the ability to build on the accomplishments of past generations.

DoS decisions are thought through and are based on facts, not fears. These are creative and solid decisions. Interestingly, a person with a higher level of DoS develops the ability to recognize when a past decision was wrong and pivot the direction of their decision. After the situational fear is gone, these decisions continue to make sense.

People must recognize when they are responding through the emotional system based in the reptilian brain and resist the urge to lower their anxiety by making emotionally reactive decisions. They need to shift into using the intellectual system found in the prefrontal cortex to produce creative solutions, remain solid in their decisions, and recognize new data to enhance or alter their decisions.  

Just because a leader states the decision was based on science and data, it does not mean the leader was making a solid decisions.

Taken from the headlines during the past 3 months, there are ample examples of both emotionally reactive decisions based in the reptilian brain and DoS decisions based in the prefrontal cortex.

Emotionally Reactive DecisionsDifferentiation of Self Decisions
ArbitraryThe definition of essential jobs was completely arbitrary. In one state, the construction companies who held state or federal contracts were considered essential and could continue their work. Those construction companies who were working on private contracts were told to stop working. Even though the private contractors could maintain the same level of safety as the public contractors, the private had to shut down (De La Rosa, 2020).  This could also be seen in the selling of seeds (Sibilla, 2020).CreativeFinding a Third Way to respond provided positive results. The Florida governor recognized the pattern of the virus attacking the elderly and the infirmed. Instead of shuttering everything, the governor focused on protecting the high risk population. Even though the Florida governor went against virus wisdom, there has been fewer deaths per 100,000 than the more restrictive and smaller population state of New York (Statista, 2020).   
Knee JerkThe assumed refusal to comply with a decree resulted in a punishment decree. In one state, the governor saw a picture of people not complying with the social distancing edict, so he responded by shutting down select beaches. It was later discovered he was responding to an optical illusion. The beach goers were actually complying with the social distancing, the picture was wrong (Money, Lin IL, Winkley, 2020).   SolidOnce the facts indicated a direction, leaders stand firm. In one state, the governor opened the state back up before anyone else thought it was prudent. The governor remained solid in his convictions and the death rate has not skyrocketed (GDPH, 2020). This result is contrary to his detractor’s predictions of exploding death rates.  
Heel DiggingThe appropriation of power resulting in drastic overreach. In one state, a woman opened up her business early. A judge demanded she apologize for her selfishness. When she refused to apologize, he sent her to jail for 7 days, even though the county had released convicted criminals because the jail system was experiencing the virus (Montoya, 2020).PivotingRecognizing a mistake in a decision and rectyfying it. After the heel digging judge sent the business owner to jail, the governor of the state realized his orginial order to jail people for non-compliance was nonsensical. He resinded the “jail for non-complience” portion of his emergency decree (Weber, 2020). The state’s Supreme Court followed up with an order to immediately release the business owner (Garrett & Smith, 2020).  

Most people think they have the ability to dissect facts, integrate data, and make a solid decision. Unfortunately, this is not true. There is a substantial difference between emotionally reactive decisions made out of anxiety and fact based decisions stemming from a person’s level of DoS. Once perpetuates the fear and the other provides a pathway out of the chaos.

How do you make decisions during stressful times? Take the Leader Meter quiz and find out.

Julie Swanberg-Hjelm, PhD

Julie is an expert on differentiation of self. She helps organizations and individuals recognize how they are responding to anxiety and how to create new patterns of response. People are able to develop a greater capability of interacting with problems in a creative manner after they lower their emotional reactivity and increase their differentiation of self.


De La Rosa, S. (2020). Busilders bemoan Washington’s status as one of 4 states banning residential construction. Retreived from

Garrett, R. T., & Smith, L. (2020). Salon owner relaesed on orders of Texas Supreme Courts after Gov. Greg Abbot forbids putting coronavirus scofflaws in jail. Retrieved from

Georgia Department of Public Heath (GDPH). (2020). Georgia department of publich health daily status report. Retreived from

Money, L., Lin Il, R-G., Winkley, L. (2020). Backlash over closing California beaches grows in some coastal communities. Retreived from

Montoya, R. (2020). Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther fined and jailed. Retreived from

Sibilla, N. (2020). Michigan bans many stores from selling seeds, home gardening supplies, call them “not necessary.” Retreived from

Statista. (2020). Death rates from coronavirus (COVID-19) in the Unites States as of May 8, 2020 by state. Retrieved from

Weber, P. J. (2020). Texas governor soften order over jailed hair salon owner Shelley Luther. Retreived from