Prolonged Stress (Like the Covid-19 Pandemic) Has Adverse Consequences For Your Decision-Making Process and Prowess
In the previous blog post, I shared with you some research on the Impact of Stress on Your Brain. In today’s post, I will share with you how stress impacts decision making.
This topic is highly relevant today as almost everyone is under increased stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shelter-in-place and lockdown rules implemented by governments across the world.
Plus, as May is National Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the U.K., the timing seems most appropriate.
How Stress Impacts Decision Making
Feeling stressed changes how people weigh risks and rewards during the decision-making process.
Interesting, when under stress people actually focus more on the way outcomes could go right. When under stress, the natural tendency is to pay greater 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.
Additionally, a common propensity under stress is to resort to decision making based on binary choices. Thus, people under stress tend to limit the options available to them to just two alternatives, usually in an attempt to arrive at a faster decision.
Unfortunately, this not only prevents more and often better options from being considered, this can also result in premature conclusions based on only a subset of all available facts and information.
Usually, the more stressful the circumstances being faced are, the more a leader needs to explore a wide range of options and potential solutions. Unfortunately, while relying on past experiences may create a false sense of comfort and confidence, limiting one’s options is more often than not a recipe for disaster and poor decision making.
Thus, it is vitally important to know ourselves, our preferences, and our default mode when it comes to decision making. Because, when under stress, we are most likely to fall into our default mode and preferred decision-making style, no matter how easy or difficult a decision may be. This is why stress causes some people to freeze and incapacitates their decision-making capabilities, even for the easiest and most routine of decisions.
Making Better Decisions
Leaders in the workplace are poorly equipped to understand how stress impacts their decision making, much less the impact of stress on the decisions of their direct reports and colleagues. And the situation will get worse when people start returning to the office and workplace environment full of anxiety, increased pressure to make up for lost time, higher stress levels, and uncertainty around how to make decisions in a volatile and unfamiliar post-pandemic world.
This is why I developed our one-day workshop on Better Decision Making: Shifting from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership. This program is an excellent re-bonding opportunity for leaders and management teams and will teach them new techniques and tactics for handling stress in the workplace and preventing stress from negatively impacting their decision-making processes. Contact me today to discuss how to bring these important best practices into your organization.
Thanks for reading and thinking about these critical workplace issues. In appreciation, and to support National Mental Health Month, my book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes is free this week in the Amazon Kindle store. Download your free copy now.