How higher ed leaders can guard against crisis thinking

Expert Insight

How higher ed leaders can guard against crisis thinking

If you’ve ever seen a movie with an apocalyptic storyline, you’ve probably noticed the two most stereotyped crisis personas: the unflappable hero and the panic-crazed bystander. While decades of research have shown us that most people don’t resemble either archetype when faced with a crisis (thankfully), psychologists have identified certain thinking patterns that are more prevalent during crisis situations and can often result in counterproductive decision-making. At a time when large scale, and potentially disruptive, changes are needed for higher education’s COVID-19 response and strategy, it’s especially critical that leaders are able to avoid these psychological pitfalls to make the right decisions. Here’s how you can identify and redirect three common crisis thinking patterns that can obstruct effective recovery and response:

Loss aversion

People are naturally loss-averse, meaning that they are more motivated to prevent losses than they are to achieve gains of the same magnitude. Behavioral economics tells us that experiencing one meaningful loss makes us even more sensitive to subsequent losses. As students, faculty, and administrators grapple with the numerous losses—from cancelled commencements to revenue shortfalls—already brought about by COVID-19, the natural inclination may be to adopt a defensive strategy: avoid any and all perceived risk in order to minimize further loss.

However, doing so paradoxically sets our institutions up for even greater losses in the long-term. Successful institutions use times of crises to make smart, strategic investments that ensure their long-term sustainability. Identify strategic opportunities—and risks—through scenario planning exercises that shift leader mindsets from loss avoidance to opportunity gain.


Ingroup favoritism, the practice of prioritizing the needs and desires of those we identify closely with, is a fundamental driver of social behavior, tracing its origins back to evolutionary kin selection. In time of crisis, ingroup favoritism is often exacerbated, as communities, organizations, and even countries aim to achieve the best outcomes for their constituents. One negative consequence of this tendency is isolationism, rejecting intergroup collaboration in an effort to consolidate resources within one’s own group. We’ve seen this play out on a global stage as nations compete for scarce resources, and it’s not hard to imagine cash- and enrollment-strapped institutions adopting a similar tact.

As tempting as an inward focus may be during turbulent times, an “every college for itself” approach will do more harm than good. In a resource-scarce environment, the success of a single institution—and its stakeholders—may very well depend on its ability to work with higher ed and industry partners to overcome shared challenges. Thus it’s more important than ever that higher ed is forging and strengthening partnerships within and beyond the sector to develop impactful regional strategies.

Irrelevant urgency

The nationwide run on toilet paper during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak provides of the more bizarre storylines of the pandemic. The underlying pattern of thinking that prompted such stockpiling, however, is fairly straightforward. When we experience a loss of control in one domain, we often attempt to reconcile that loss by achieving greater control in an unrelated domain. If people know that they’ll be spending more time at home, it’s sensible to purchase slightly larger quantities of household supplies. But in the context of a global pandemic that has upended every aspect of daily life, that sensible decision quickly morphs into an impulse to stockpile, in order to achieve some level of certainty in an uncertain world. In higher ed, this may manifest in a rush to complete a strategic plan that’s completely disconnected from the new realities of our present circumstances, or the devotion of scarce leadership capacity to low-stakes operational tasks.

To avoid falling prey to such an impulse, be ruthless about what activities deserve valuable leader mindshare.  Executive teams need to turn from managing the operations of the crisis to prioritizing the activities most critical to mitigating what could be devastating shocks to finances and mission:  What’s necessary for safeguarding student success?  What new revenue opportunities should we pursue to offset potential losses?   In order to shift attention to urgent strategic questions, many more elements of crisis response will need to be delegated than is historically the case.  Involving broader leadership teams in emergency response tabletop exercise can ensure that more individuals are prepared to address the challenges the institution is likely to face.

These crisis thinking patterns rely on cognitive processes that are “pre-wired” into our psychology, so it’s no surprise that they’re both ubiquitous and extremely difficult to redirect. That task becomes even more challenging when it’s hard to see a way out, which was how many college leaders felt with the threats to finances and mission that higher ed was facing even before this all began.

However, crises also provide us with a rare opportunity to reset the status quo—to forge stronger connections, affirm our mission, and craft a bold vision for the future—and establishing the right mindset is a critical first step.

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