When Under Stress Leaders Tend to Make Reactionary Decisions
In the previous post, I shared with you how Prolonged Stress Impacts Brain Health for leaders. Today let’s look at the impact of stress on decision making.
.Feeling stressed changes how people — including leaders — weigh risks and rewards during their decision-making processes.
Interesting, when under stress people actually focus on the way outcomes could go right. When under stress, the natural tendency is to pay more attention to positive information, while discounting negative information, according to research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
This means when people under stress are making a difficult decision, their tendency will be to pay more attention to the upsides of the alternatives under consideration and less attention to the downsides. The disastrous decision-making around the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger is an unfortunate example of wrongfully paying too much attention to the upsides and not enough on the contradicting downsides information.
Research has also shown that stress increases the differences in how men and women think about and evaluate risk. When men are under stress, they have an increased tendency and willingness to take risks. When women are under stress, they have a tendency to get more conservative about risk. This, of course, is a generalization and even though there is scientific evidence to support this conclusion, it is critically important to remember that each of us has individual tendencies and preferences that may or may not be in line with gender generalizations.
Other research has shown that the stress of disruptions can significantly impact decision making. Participants scored much lower on a memory exercise when disruptions and interruptions occurred. In a 2009 article in Psychological Science, the authors of this study also noted that when under stress while needing to make a decision we are “more likely to bear in mind things that have been rewarding and to overlook information predicting negative outcomes.” This conclusion is in agreement with the study referenced above about the tendency to focus on upsides, instead of downsides, when making decisions under stress.
Under stress people are more likely to make intuitive and quick decisions, without really thinking through the problem or task. This is because our brains are wired to be reactionary, not analytical, under stress.
This is why we counsel leaders to learn to respond to situations, people, and events rather than react to them. Leaders need to be first responders, not first reactors by pausing, listening, and becoming more mindful and present whenever decisions need to be made.
This article is partially excerpted from my award-winning book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes: How to go from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. The book is the recipient of a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association for bringing “a comprehensive plan of action for improving life through recognizing decision-making patterns that don’t serve us well, don’t enrich our lives, and don’t bring us to our goals and dreams.”