Decision Making in Stressful Times

We tend to think of tax season as the most stressful time of the year, but does the stress at work ever really go away? Ongoing projects, recruiting, retention issues, growth initiatives and many more endeavors consume your time. All of these require leaders to make decisions, and as the stress of daily life takes over, we often find it difficult to move forward in a positive and productive manner.

In the book, “Decisions and Brilliant Mistakes,” author Paul Schoemaker says that decision-making skills are like muscles: “To strengthen them, you need to use them often.” He also offers advice for developing good reflexes: “Get in the habit of understanding what works and what doesn’t. Becoming decision-fit is a choice you can make, and take direct action to achieve.”

The additional – and, in my opinion, more valuable – lesson in the book is that leaders must also know when they are NOT fit. Leaders “must be able to realize when conditions are not in their favor. When a golfer is injured, he or she changes their swing. When a firm is going through a shake-up or a crisis, leadership should know it may be at diminished capacity. It’s difficult to make decisions during stressful times, not because you have lost your ability, but because conditions are different.” So, what do leaders do to move through these stressful times and continue making solid, smart decisions? Try the following steps – and make them consistent habits: 

Take a breath and slow down. When you are “feeling the pressure,” realize that it is a time when many make quick decisions with too little information. Make a conscious effort to slow down and take your time in making the decision. Do your research and look at multiple problem definitions before you make a choice. This should become a standard part of every project-scoping conversation you have, particularly when the issue is new or complex.

Think in big, bold vision. Stressful times are also an excellent time to think outside the box in new and creative ways. Don’t settle for status quo. Design new solutions that allow you to move forward in a positive and unique way. There are times when the stress of the moment will create a new and far better result than you ever imagined.

Encourage positive conflict. Debate can foster insight, as long as the conflict is among ideas and not among people. Now more than ever, we live in a world where people can choose to interact only with those who agree with them, whether it’s through Facebook friends, favorite news sources or social cliques. To escape from these silos, approach alternative views with an open mind. Don’t become a prisoner of your own singular mental model. 

Engage with genius. Surround yourself with smart and motivated people – and most importantly, those that do not think like you do! Critical thinkers seek out those who view the world differently and try hard to understand why. You may still disagree with these geniuses, but they may reframe your own thinking for the better. 

Stop looking at stressful times as a time to take a break from decisionbmaking. Instead, reframe your thinking. This is a time to bound forward with confidence.