Stress and Decisions

Decisions are the product of leadership. When there is a poor process of decision-making in place, it is difficult to achieve a consistently high-quality result of effective decisions. And when organizations are under stress, there is great pressure on the decision-making process. It is important to understand these changes and how they may affect the decisions that are made. 
As you read this article, I suggest you place your tongue firmly in your cheek. If you are not in the mood for an irreverent look at business decisions made under stress, there will be another Psychology for Business newsletter coming in two weeks…. 
9 ways to let stress guide your decisions: 

  1. Put everything into black and white categories. Black and white thinking leads to being able to find the ONE right way to proceed. When I am not under stress I can easily become overwhelmed by the many different opportunities that are available. These less stressful times generate a lot of creative possibilities that can be confusing. Stress generates either/or thoughts. Either I lay off workers or I close our company’s doors. Either you agree with me or you are my enemy. Either I close this deal, at any cost, or we go bankrupt. Decisions are simpler in these categories. It is easy to determine what to do. All those who have different ideas about how I should proceed just don’t understand the seriousness of the situation.

LESSON: During stress, thoughts tend toward the extremes. Either/or thoughts facilitate the quick decisions that increase survival during truly dangerous times. These thoughts are also too simplistic for the complex realities of the real business world. Take time to breathe and find some possible courses of action that are between the extremes.

  1. The great catastrophe is right around the corner. When stress is high it becomes clear that the worst is about to happen. I always believed that the worst would happen some day and that day is finally here. During this time I might rue the days I spent enjoying my business and not planning for the worst, but at least I can now summon the courage to fight against the overwhelming disaster that looms ahead. There is no time to notice what might be going well in my organization. This is a crisis!

 LESSON: Thoughts of gloom and doom predominate during the times of high stress. This thought process was useful to break through the denial that might have prevented our ancestors from taking action to avoid a disaster. In the modern world, we have a tendency to see what we expect to see. This can blind us to the strengths that exist within our organization. It is  useful to search for the good aspects of our organization when the stress rises. 

  1. Look out for number one. Teamwork was fashionable during the 1990’s when business was strong. But now that the stress in mounting, I must save myself. There is no time to gather strength from the group; they just might hold me back. It is the time to make sure that I am well cared for and secure. Even if it results in damage to the organization or to my fellow workers, at least I will survive. Survival is the only issue. No time for creative solutions or productive efforts now.

LESSON: Teamwork breaks down when stresses are intense. This is an unfortunate reality because the power of the group is uniquely helpful at this time. The time for building teamwork, however, is when times are more calm and relaxed. When good teams are in place, there is a coherence and support that dramatically improves the response to stress. 

  1. I am able to justify my decision to save myself because it is clear to me, in this stressful time, that all the others are out to get me! Not only is teamwork out of fashion when stress takes control but even worse than that, I can be sure that former teammates and employees are actively engaged in trying to make my life miserable. They probably stay up nights trying to think of ways to disrupt my life. I know I am up nights trying to figure out ways to defend myself. I don’t even want to think about the danger emanating from my business competitors.

LESSON: Danger prepares us to see more danger. Once we are in that frame of mind, we begin to interpret neutral events as being both hostile and aimed at harming us. In truly dangerous situations that tendency can be a bias that keeps us safe. In not-really-dangerous situations, these thoughts cause us to attribute bad intentions to others when they are neutral or even positive toward us. 

  1. Remember, everything is important. When times were good and I put together a to-do list, I noticed that there were important goals and minor issues that intermingled in my day. It took thought to prioritize my list. I am not bothered by such trivia during these times of stress because everything is equally devastating. I am as distressed by the waste basket that went un-emptied by the cleaning service as about the sales presentation I am scheduled to deliver in 20 minutes. I know that if the basket were empty, my life would be much easier.

LESSON: It is difficult, during these times, to make the effort to carefully think through priorities. We often find it difficult to keep thing in proper proportion. Minor problems seem to be very important. It requires work (work that is worth the effort) to maintain a sense of proportion. 

  1. Don’t confuse me with the facts.  I already have my mind made up. This is time for decisive leadership and I know what to do. It is annoying to be given information that counters my beliefs. If I listen to them, others might begin to think I am less than superhuman and that would cause them to doubt me. So I will pick a course and drive the organization toward it in the face of any objection (even my own lingering doubts must be ignored). Then they will all know how strong I am.

LESSON: Under extreme stress, people want a strong and confident leader. The uncertainties seem less threatening when there is someone who takes charge and sets a definitive course of action. When that stress is acute (i.e. a predator is attacking or a volcano is erupting) strong and definitive leadership can be life saving. In the more complex, modern world strong and definitive action may be achieved only at the expense of oversimplification of the facts of the situation. That often leads to long term disaster. Effective leadership in highly stressful but complex situations must remain open to and even solicit alternative points of view to make solid choices. 

  1. It must be done now! Whatever it is, it must be done immediately. Yesterday would be even better. Impulsive actions are good because I need to do something. It is very difficult to quiet myself and focus on one issue long enough to get clarity. It is easier to be doing things. It makes me feel less stressed.

LESSON: Quick action when we are being physically attacked is an important tool of survival. The impulsivity associated with this type of action makes it unpredictable and potentially confuses the attacker. The focus is broad because there is a potential that the attacker we see is accompanied by other attackers we have not yet noticed, so it would be maladaptive to be too focused on one point of reference.  As a result, we are primed to take action when we are under stress. It is difficult to get quiet and to engage in careful analysis. It takes practice to quiet ourselves and focus. 

  1. Blunt force works. I remember when I got made as a child; I would often slam things and pound on things to get them to work. It did not work very well then but it seems like a good thing to try again now. It probably will work to have a “temper tantrum” with my employees, competitors or even with my customers as a way to scare them into doing what I want them to do. I seem to have lost the ability to work with finesse or skill. The bigger the hammer, the better when stress is this high.

LESSON: The entire body gears up for a physical confrontation during times of stress. For our ancestors, this physical confrontation was a nearly universal experience when danger threatened. Enemies were engaged face to face in combat. Even the natural disasters required a physical response to run away or to migrate to a different land to escape danger. Today’s stress rarely results in a need to make a physical response. Yet our bodies are geared up, through thousands of years of evolution, to respond with physical aggression. It often seems like aggression is the right response when we are stressed. It turns out to often be the wrong response in the long run. 

  1. Today is all that matters. I don’t consider the long range implications of the policies I set today. After all (according to point #2) there is very little likelihood that the business will survive this catastrophic turn of events, so tomorrow won’t be anything to be concerned about. It is best to only do what will work today. If it sets a bad precedent it will probably not be something I have to deal with.

LESSON: During times of real emergencies, the immediate response was the only response that mattered. If we do not survive, nothing else matters. Real emergencies are rarer than the emergencies we perceive in our heads. During times of stress it is easy to become so focused on the immediate situation that we can lose sight of the “bigger picture” that guides our organization. It is important to remember that there is a very high likelihood that our company will survive this stress, and if it does, then the long term implications are very important. 

Stress happens. If we are to live in the real world, there will be challenges and pressures that are associated with the work that we do. It is tempting to believe that if we could just get everything to go right we could eliminate all difficulties. In truth, the challenges and pressures are often opportunities to grow or become stronger. 

However, these same stresses are also times that can bring out the worst in us. 

Our response to stress is grounded in ancient patterns of behavior. Our ancestors were frequently confronted with life and death issues that required emergency responses. The inability to recognize and respond to stress led to early death, which meant that those who did not act did not pass their genes along to the next generation. We are the children of those who dealt well with life and death decisions. 

Somewhere between the savannahs of Africa and our modern world, however, conditions changed. We no longer face life and death decisions as often, we simply think as though we still do. When we are under stress, our survival mechanisms push us to react as though our life depended on it. This has implications for our physical health, but it also has effects on our thought processes (how we come to decisions). 

These ancient processes push us toward either/or thinking, catastrophizing, becoming self-absorbed while interpreting others’ actions as containing hostile intentions, losing our sense of proportionality, making impulsive decisions and attempting to force those decisions on to others. All of these thought processes had survival value during an attack by predators, but can have disastrous consequences in the business environment. 

If you are like most readers, you will quickly recognize someone in your company who engages in these stress-induced reactions. It is much harder to see these reactions in ourselves, but we all fall prey to them. They are the reactions that are automatic, but we are capable of raising our awareness to a conscious level and make choices that are more helpful for the circumstances in which we work.