Stress affects our ability to make the best decisions, but there are some strategies you can help yourself overcome its impact.
BY GWEN MORAN
From pausing new projects to making staff cuts to finding ways to cut expenses, business life during the COVID-19 is filled with tough decisions. And while most of us know the havoc stress can wreak on decision-making, from altered valuation and feedback processing to a tendency to revert to “safe,” habit-based options—there’s little respite from pandemic-induced pressure, causing decision-making to be tougher even as the stakes are higher.
“Stress creates cortisol and other chemicals in the body and that radically reduce our ability to think through things. And, so, we fall back on kind of more primitive decision-making strategies, habits, and copying other people as opposed to thinking through how actions lead to consequences,” says Lorien Pratt, cofounder and chief scientist of Quantellia, a decision intelligence software and services firm, and author of Link: How Decision Intelligence Connects Data, Actions, and Outcomes for a Better World.
In addition to needing to make immediate decisions in the face of a crisis, our decisions are becoming more complex, Pratt says. The decision intelligence field exists because executive decision-makers in industry and government saw that globalization and other factors made decisions more complex. “Their actions have these ripple effects that played out over time and unintended consequences were increasing,” she adds. (Any fan of The Good Place can tell you this.)
In times when clearheaded decisions and vision are necessary, but conditions are stressful, there are some steps people can take to help bolster decision-making ability:
START WITH THE OUTCOME
When Pratt works with teams to refine decision-making, she starts with the end. Often, when she asks teams what they want the outcome to be, she gets varied—and, sometimes, conflicting—answers from various team members. That usually comes as a surprise to the group, she says. This common problem derails decision-making even in calmer times, she says. “Simply aligning around outcomes—and re-aligning and checking—can go a long way,” she says. Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish and, if you’re working with a team, build consensus around that.
GATHER THE RIGHT DATA
Once you understand the end point, you can start to map out the best route to get there, says Michellana Y. Jester, lecturer and GLab course manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. To do so, start by:
- Identifying relevant stakeholders
- Understanding roles
- Gathering relevant data about competitors, obstacles, and issues related to the decision
- Conducting a SWOT analysis and stress test, including examining underlying assumptions, costs, and alternative scenarios
Once you have the data, you can begin to share it with relevant individuals for input that may inform your decision. “Important [consideration] for the leader: What is he or she willing to do to execute on the proposed plan? What is at stake? What are they willing to risk?” she says. “One question I ask is ‘what is precious and what is expendable?’ since our choices are not made in a vacuum.”
SOLICIT DIFFERENT VIEWPOINTS
When you’re gathering data and collecting input, involving others who can bring diversity of thought is critical to help overcome inherent biases and get a clearer view, Pratt says. Depending on the decision, this includes getting input from people in different roles or opinions, as well as from people who represent different demographic and psychographic backgrounds.
“When we’re stressed, we focus on the actions we’ve always known were available. And when you get into a diverse team brainstorming the actions, often you discover things that you could do that you hadn’t even thought of before,” she says. You may find a new approach or that the options you’re considering have unintended consequences. Encouraging input from others who are different than you can also help you overcome the biases and other obstacles we have that affect good decision-making.
Pratt also advises using “old-school” techniques like collaborating on a virtual white board when it’s not possible to gather in-person.
LET YOUR VALUES GUIDE YOU
If you’ve put work into developing your corporate values and they’re not just lip service, they should be a touchstone now, says Mike Kallet, CEO of HeadScratchers, a critical thinking consultancy, and author of Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills. “I’ve seen a lot of companies that tack up five or six core values and yet their actions are not consistent,” he says. If you know what the company’s core values are, leaders need to consider whether the decisions they’re making are consistent. If not, leaders could damage the organization’s culture and its following, he says.
Don’t let fear or a false sense of urgency push you to make decisions before you need to, Pratt adds. Many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty, so they make a decision sooner than necessary to alleviate the discomfort. In times of great change or crisis, circumstances may change frequently. If you take the time you have instead of rushing, the decision-making factors may be radically different, she says.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
In times of change and crisis, people find themselves navigating a range of factors, some of which they can control and some they cannot. Understanding the difference between the two is essential, Kallet says. “Work on the things that we can control, and let’s understand how those things are affecting us,” he says. You may not be able to control the length of a stay-at-home order, but you can control how you’re going to continue business operations or adapt your business model to find new revenue streams.
If you try to make decisions based on the factors you can’t control or the issues that can’t be known, you risk getting stuck in analysis paralysis, he says. When you work within the framework you have and adjust as needed, you can create models and explore scenarios with a greater degree of accuracy.
BALANCE EMOTION AND EMPATHY
Keeping emotions in check is part of making good, objective decisions, but you should also make sure empathy is part of the equation, says Mary Czerwinski, a research manager at Microsoft who studies emotions and their effects of stress on decision-making. Gather your data from the best resources available and avoid watching nonstop news coverage of the crisis, which can stir emotions that aren’t helpful, she says. She advises the people she mentors to limit news intake to once or twice a day to stay informed and avoid social media. At the same time, use empathy to help you understand the decision’s impact and why people may feel strongly about it.
EXECUTE, BUT REMAIN FLEXIBLE
Once you’ve come to a decision, execute it, but monitor the conditions and be prepared to adjust if needed, Jester says. As you obtain new information or conditions change, you may need to adapt.
While decision-making can be harder now, the COVID-19 pandemic is also forcing leaders to re-examine their businesses and the world in which they exist. “The silver lining with COVID is it’s forcing everyone to think about exponential curve, actions at a distance, inter-dependencies between jobs, and the economy and health,” she says. This may lead to new ways of thinking and new solutions. “To me, the characteristic of the new normal is that we have a chance—not guaranteed—to crack through these problems that have remained unsolved because they have these characteristics that are so different than the way our brains evolved.”
Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books
© Fast Company 2020