TAMU-CC Management Experts Give Advice on Dealing with Chaotic Times

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Uncertain times, whether in our businesses or personal lives, can bring action to a standstill. The chaos puts us in unfamiliar circumstances, and we may question our normal ways of reacting to a situation.

Rather than waiting for the most accurate course of action, going ahead and taking the most plausible course may break the logjam and begin the process of building momentum, said Dr. W. Scott Sherman, Associate Professor of Management at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

The research of Sherman and his colleague, Dr. Randall Harris, Professor of Management, shows that plausibility is more important than accuracy in the chaos of crisis; plans need to evolve as new data becomes known; and acting is crucial to developing meaning and reducing chaos.

One way to get a sense of how to react to the current COVID-19 crisis is to look at past events, Sherman said.

“Research on first responders' reactions to Hurricane Harvey in the Coastal Bend and prior studies of how individuals make sense of chaos may help deal with the uncertainty and chaos that appears to surround COVID-19 life,” he said.

Sherman said it is common when facing a crisis to have the feeling that past experiences do not apply and the realization that “I have never been here before” may lead to inaction.

“This feeling can rise to the point that individuals are no longer able to act because the chaos is too great,” Sherman said.

People finding themselves in this state of mind should consider taking three steps.

“Understand that finding a plausible explanation of what is happening is critical,” Sherman said. “The explanation does not have to be accurate at the moment. Plausibility is more important than accuracy. For example, a plausible explanation for shelter in place orders to be followed is to reduce the demand for personal protective equipment, not because the government ordered it or because it is sane policy, but to keep enough PPE out there for first responders.”

A second step helps people adapt and fine-tune their reactions over time.

“Understand that these explanations will evolve over time and move toward accuracy,” Sherman said. “For example, the shelter in place order until April 20 evolved into the shelter in place order until May 4, which may evolve into the shelter in place order until May 18. The reasoning evolved into flattening the curve of the infection.”

An important next step is to take action. 

“The way to re-establish knowing what is happening is to take action, do something,” Sherman said. “Action creates meaning, meaning creates the need for more action, the story evolves in jerks and fits, and finally gathers momentum and moves forward on its own. Stopping – doing nothing – will tend to create an increased feeling of being overwhelmed by the chaos. For example, doing things at home to prepare for the end of shelter in place, planning and doing activities to stay mentally and physically active, and finding ways to help others allows the individual to begin re-establishing meaning and order despite external chaos.”

The bottom line is to do something.

“The punchline is the old adage, ‘Don't just stand there. Do something,’” Sherman said. “Doing something leads to doing something else and doing a series of something creates momentum and meaning and combats the feeling of chaos and a return to sensemaking.”

Sherman presented the results of his and Dr. Harris’ research March 18 at the Southwest Academy of Management meeting in San Antonio.