Imagine you walk into your office on a Monday morning and are instantly alerted to an emerging problem that requires you to make a high-risk decision. The outcome is uncertain and a wrong decision by you, could have a tremendous negative impact on your company.
How do you handle the situation?
Decision making under uncertainty
Leaders face such type of high-risk decision making regularly. Though some leaders manage the stress fairly well, others fall prey to making poor decisions and/or suffer physically and mentally from the effects of the high stress. Indeed, this stress is a chief reason so many executives suffer from insomnia, gastric ulcers, tension headaches and other physical and psychological ailments, and why many make bad decisions.
Stress and decision making
Studies show that acute stress can impair decisions made under risk. Studies also show that individuals tend to make riskier decisions in response to stress, and that overall, stress conditions lead to decisions that can be more disadvantageous, more reward seeking (in an attempt to feel good or get a “high”), and more risk taking than nonstress conditions.
In other words, under high stress, individuals tend to make riskier decisions even while their ability to make decisions is actually impaired. It’s akin to deciding to drive a car when completely inebriated. Big risk. Bad decision.
The bigger the stress (which is dependent on the stressor type and the decision situation), the more influence it has on the brain , and the more likely disadvantageous decisions are made, according to science.
When stress is added to stress
Imagine, if you will, the same scenario — You walk into your office on a Monday morning and are instantly faced with an emergency situation — and this time, you are also sleep deprived, irritable, worried about your daughter who came in late the night before smelling of alcohol, and feeling guilty, blaming yourself for being a bad parent because you have rarely been home due to work demands.
Would you handle the situation differently given you are highly stressed to begin with?
Needing to make decision in the face ambiguity and adversity under any scenario is stressful. Trying to make that high-risk decision when you have minimal energy, brainpower, emotional bandwidth or sense of resilience, makes it worse. Even the person who is normally unfazed by chaos or doubt may fall prey to such stress.
With increased physiological and psychological stress, worry, fear, anger, blame, guilt or any other negative emotion predominate, and the mind is more likely to perceive an uncertain situation as threating versus a challenge that needs to be reckoned with. As stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol rise, higher (more logical) brain centers and the ability to make good judgment are blocked, and emotional response centers take over along with reward seeking. The result: More myopic thinking, fear-based or irrational behavior, and emotional risk taking.
It can happen to the best of us.
The key is to calm the stress response and access the resilient mindset
When the mind perceives a situation as threatening, the stress response moves into over-drive, increasing the heart rate, respiratory rate, muscle tension, inflammatory response, fear-related behaviors, and shutting down higher cognitive processing as fear-based memory stores are retrieved.
A more resilient mindset is likely to perceive a negative situation as threatening, but simply one that is extremely challenging, but can be dealt with. Since a more resilient mindset perceives a situation as manageable rather than threatening, the stress system is not stimulated into over-drive, but rather it is activated just enough to motivate action and retrieve necessary information for adequate decision-making. Rather than shutting down, the mind and rational and creative thinking remain open, the individual remains less emotional, and is better able to pay attention to gut instincts while also able to weigh in the information as it unfolds.
With a resilient mindset you:
· Avoid emotional risk taking.
· Stay calm and objective in the face of uncertainty and adversity.
· Stand steady with regard to your (and the company’s) core values and beliefs.
· Stay open, working towards clarifying as much uncertainty as possible, while maintaining the ability to be creative and innovative.
· Make small decisions initially that will lead to more clarity.
The trick is to be able to maintain a resilient mindset despite stress accumulating or building up, to be able to hold your calm and objectivity no matter what.
You can do so by learning how to keep the stress response in check. The quieter the stress system, the more access you have to your knowledge base, creativity, good judgment, objectivity, core values and beliefs, and emotional intelligence.
Controlling the stress response with P.O.W.E.R.
Controlling the stress response involves both strengthening your physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual infrastructure as a general practice as well as learning how to shift out of the fight or flight mode in the moment, as it is happening. Strengthening your infrastructure includes
ensuring you have adequate sleep, an exercise routine, nutrition that fuels you, healthy relationships, a hobby, and a spiritual and/or meditation practice. It all counts towards balancing the scale in the favor of the resilient mindset and ensuring that in types of stress, you have access to your power.
In the moment of stress and uncertainty, it is possible to also use your P.O.W.E.R. to calm the stress response to enable access to your resilient mindset. You can do the following:
P- Pause — Clear your mind and slow down the stress response with ten power breaths, by inhaling deeply and counting 1–2–3, then exhaling completely, counting 1–2–3–4–5. Letting the exhalation be longer than the inhalation enables the mind and body to release tension more effectively. Use these power breaths to empty your mind and calm the body.
O- Optimize your knowledge and options — do your research. Do not jump to conclusions. Stay open to new information. Research your options. Weigh pros and cons. Knowledge is power and a way to calm risk anxiety.
W –Witness your physiology. Calm your mind and witness what is happening in your body. Where do you feel resistance or contraction in your body? Shifting your attention away from a problem or situation to focusing on the tension in your body, gives you an opportunity to fix something that is under control. You have the power to shift your physiology, which will enable you to clear your mind.
E –Examine your emotions as they rise as objectively as possible when you let yourself think about the worse case scenario. See yourself through it. Fear of the unknown is strongly influences the fight or flight response. See the problem to the worst end, allowing yourself to see that the worst fear is still survivable.
R — Release, re-evaluate and restore.
Release the emotional charge that is in your body by breathing into the area of contraction.
— Imagine the area of tension is moving with your breath, like a curtain that is moved by a breeze.
— Release the emotion into the breeze as you exhale as you breathe in a sense of peace.
— You may wish to repeat to yourself, “I breathe in peace, and I let go of everything else.”
— Take one to ten minutes to do this practice.
Re-evaluate and check your body for tension. When more calm, reassess the research and options along with your values and goals. What is the outcome you desire and which option most resonates with the values and goals? Look at the facts while also paying attention to how your body reacts.
Restore your resilient mindset as your values, intuition and knowledge integrate, enabling you to stay calm and rational, taking risks only for the right reasons.