Making Decisions when the Stress the Stress is On: Part 1

Leaders are defined by the decisions they make and the results they produce.

Most executives know this and it weighs on them.  Making high-stakes decisions is risky and takes a toll.

As anxiety sets in, we fall into a trap. We start worrying about making the decision rather than thinking about making the best decision.

This happens when we substitute action for accuracy, swiftness for substance. "We can fix what doesn't work later," is the consolation.

Certainly, we can never have perfect information or foresee all negative externalities.

But in our haste to act, we often overlook the most obvious problems.

The result is a poor decision, which unfortunately, only becomes evident in hindsight.

Bad decisions hurt our company, our career, and our confidence. We begin to worry that we don't have what it takes to lead.

In the words of the late Edwin Friedman, we develop "a failure of nerve."

Have you been in a situation where you made a hasty decision because of stress that in retrospect you wish you had done differently? Did it startle your confidence as a leader?

In this post, I focus on the process of decision-making. When the pressure is on, the steps leading up to making a decision are what set the stage for a successful one. Here is where confidence and courage are vital.

Below are five areas for cultivating clear-minded decisions.

1. Separate and connect. Most leaders say one of the most stressful parts of their job is balancing the competing demands of multiple constituencies – boards, shareholders, colleagues, labor groups, etc. They feel pushed and pulled from all directions.

These demands are only natural. Each group has its own agenda. And as presidential historian Richard Neustadt was fond of saying, Presidents (or CEO's) are expected to "do something about everything." This only heightens a leader's anxiety.

When the relational stress piles on, we default to an ineffective and unhealthy way of handling the conflict. Either we disengage (often by avoidance) our constituents or we fuse with their anxiety.  That is, we either isolate ourselves (think Richard Nixon) or ignore advice (disengagement), or we worry about what others will think and start taking on their stress as our own (fusion). 

Both extremes cloud our judgment.

Separation impedes information flow - the lifeblood of every good decision - while fusion leads to groupthink.

The solution to this is differentiation - remaining autonomous yet connected.  When we differentiate, we hold onto ourselves and our values, yet maintain relationships with those whom we may disagree. We can live with conflict and remain calm, and as a result, we make better decisions.

Sound difficult? It is, however, developing awareness of when separation and fusion are happening and having a plan to respond differently is a practice anyone can create.

At the macro level, carve out time each week for thinking and reflecting.  Have your assistant make a reoccurring appointment in your schedule so others know.

Being apart from the crowd helps clarify options - to see, you must be above not in - and from that vantage point, chart a course of action.

It doesn't end here; you also have to connect with others. Get out of the C-Suite. Engage in conversation. Build relationships. Listen, learn, and leverage what you discover.

Connections give us information and perspective. Only here are we able see things the way others do and draw upon their expertise. It's also a surefire way to build interpersonal trust.

Seem obvious? Unfortunately, very few leaders consistently connect with other people.

At the micro-level, in your personal interactions, if you are inclined to fuse, focus on the process not the person. If you feel yourself being drawn in, acknowledge it and return your focus and the conversation to the issue. 

For example, if you are discussing performance related issues with a subordinate you like a great deal (or don't like), focus your attention and the discussion on areas of improvement, not the emotional connection you have with person. This isn't to say you will ignore the reality of your relationship; you just won't let it cloud your judgment.

If, conversely, you are more likely to disengage when you experience interpersonal tension, practice active listening and empathy. Put yourself in the other person's place and have a genuine dialogue. Avoid using the blank "leader stare" - looking at the person in a way that conveys you want the conversation to end. When we do this, we're not really listening but rather formulating a response to defend our position.

2. Avoid dualistic thinking. Most decisions involve a variety of options and possible outcomes. 

Stress, however, reduces our ability to think in complex ways.

When the pressure is on, our reptilian brain often takes over. We stop thinking rationally and start responding emotionally. We go into "flight or fight" mode, which leads to tunnel vision. Once here, we lose sight of what's going on around us, miss nuance, and discount alternatives. Contrarians and critics are silenced or ignored.

As our field of vision shrinks, we stop asking questions, we stop challenging assumptions, and we stop thinking of future scenarios.

This often leads to hasty, ill-considered decisions. We think we have to make a decision immediately.

This is often not the case.

To avoid dualistic thinking, first, recognize that it results from our innate fear response. It's natural, but you need to recognize it in order to respond to it differently.

Ask yourself, what am I/my team afraid of? What is giving me pause? Is it prudence or am I responding to my own or my group's anxiety? Is the risk real or illusory, or somewhere along this continuum? Am I motivated by mitigating risk are seizing opportunity?

Then, as you drill down to your final decision, keep all the options on the table, realistic or otherwise.  Recognize that the world is a complex place and by exploring various options, a novel solution might become evident that you would not have otherwise recognized. Ask your team for all possible scenarios and have them weigh the odds of each.

Asking questions with genuine openness and curiosity helps us break out of mental ruts and opens up new possibilities.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be able see every possible outcome. It just reduces the likelihood that you'll base your information on faulty assumptions and information (induced by stress and fear), and in the process, it fosters a spirit of collaboration and commitment to the final decision.

4. Don’t get bogged down by numbers. At some point, you have to make a decision. Bottom line matters, but be sure to also look at the big picture. 

Evaluate your options on multiple metrics - political, economic, strategic, social, etc. Choose the metrics that are relevant for you. For example, if you are in a highly regulated industry, legislative considerations will be important. If your business relies on import-export, you'll want to take into consideration global, political and economic trends, as well as U.S. trade policy.

Closer to home, consider how your decision will affect your innovation, culture, and strategy…all the key business areas that create value for your company.  Go through each area, systematically.

Finally, think through political and legal ramifications of your decision. Will it expose you to liability? How will it be viewed by all key stakeholders? What are the political implications of your decisions?

You may hate politics, but it's a fact of like. Thinking through the political implications, and devising responses beforehand will save you grief when you have to start answering questions.

Admittedly, "holistic decision-making" is difficult when quarterly earning rule the day. But taking a broader view may just help your numbers now and in the long run.

5. Make important decisions when you're most alert. Don't make difficult decisions when you're tired. According to research, a lack of sleep reduces cognitive function and affects decision-making. [link]

We all know this, but most of us don't head the advice of science. We almost wear fatigue as a badge of honor. We think it means we're working hard. Meanwhile, our companies suffer, to say nothing of our health and wellbeing.

Know when you're sharp and when you're not. We're all different.

I'm generally most alert mid-day after I've had a while to think and read. My wife, (she's a therapist), on the other hand, makes her best decisions, especially ones that involve weighing priorities, in the early morning before the day gets going. Because engaging with clients is mentally and emotional taxing for her (she's an introvert), the evening is a time to relax and recharge, not to think about complex issues.

Whatever you do, be sure to prioritize your decision-making based upon the importance of the issue and your ability to execute.

Making high-stakes decisions is mentally and emotionally draining. In Part 2 of this article series, I will explain how to stay resilient, bounce back, and prevent burn-out. I will explain how to prepare mentally and physically for the rigors of leadership. In the meantime, while the stress is on, practice the above five points to help you make effective decisions.