Stress Leads to Bad Decisions. Here’s How to Avoid Them

Time Bomb

A senior sales executive I’ll call Daniela was frustrated. She’d been working on delegating more to her team. To her dismay, many were struggling to take on the levels of freedom she’d offered — even though they’d asked for more responsibility. Exasperated, she vented to me, “I thought delegating was supposed to free me up to do more of my own job. But every time they drop a ball I hand off, it takes me twice as long to clean up the mess as it would have taken for me to just do it myself.” Exhausted from failing at one extreme, her natural impulse was to revert back to the other.

As research on decision making shows, our brains are wired to be more reactionary under stress. This can mean that stressed-out leaders like Daniela resort to binary choice-making, limiting the options available to them. In tough moments, we reach for premature conclusions rather than opening ourselves to more and better options. Faced with less familiar conditions for which our tried-and-true approaches won’t work, we reflexively counter our natural anxiety by narrowing and simplifying our options. Unfortunately, the attempt to impose certainty on the uncertain tends to oversimplify things to a black-and-white, all-or-nothing extreme.

Just as an orthopedist works with joint injuries whose stiffened muscles need to increase their range of motion, leaders must avoid the whiplashing effect of bounding between polarities. They must learn to increase their “range of motion” across an array of leadership challenges and increased pressures — because that gives them a more effective set of options from which to choose.

Let’s examine how this might work in four common but stressful situations.

Delegating important work. This is Daniela’s problem, and it’s a common one. Many leaders struggle to let go of decision rights. Leaders obsess over letting go of their own authority because an untested follower’s failure will make them look bad. A more insidious fear is that a follower’s success will make them irrelevant! So they cling to their authority with exhausting levels of control. But eventually, being the bottleneck becomes too stressful, and in demanding situations leaders are forced to give people chances to step up to new challenges. And with unfettered optimism, they then declare “I trust you” and let employees muddle through on their own, with limited perspective and experience. In most circumstances that is not delegation: It’s abandonment.

The amount of authority the delegator relinquishes should match the delegatee’s skill and readiness with the situation at hand. It should begin with a clear conversation between the leader and the employee clarifying expectations, honestly assessing what the employee is ready to take on, and explaining how the leader will remain involved. Too often, a sense of urgency causes leaders to skip this important preparation. In fact, the more urgent a project is, the more carefully planned the delegated authority must be.

Taking this approach would have helped Daniela see beyond the polar opposite alternatives of “delegate” and “control.” Instead, Daniela might ask herself, “What parts of this task are my people ready for and confident enough to take on, and what role must I play for this to get done?”

Communicating tough news. One of a leader’s most stressful demands is delivering messages that disappoint people. The two extremes that leaders tend to bounce between here are being overly blunt and excessively tentative. I’ve watched leaders waste precious minutes on long, confusing preambles designed to soften the blow. I’ve also seen leaders convince themselves that “just ripping the Band-Aid off” is the best way to deliver bad news. Neither option ever works. This is because “softening the blow” too often includes diluted and vague language that leaves the listener anxious but confused about what they heard. The Band-Aid-ripping approach is usually delivered with harsh, judgmental, and sometimes demeaning language that leaves the listener more focused on the leader’s offensive behavior than on whatever the message was.

Leaders must learn to blend their degree of directness and their degree of diplomacy based on the impact of what they are saying on those hearing it. Leaders who don’t have sufficient range of motion to appropriately deliver tough news have even less capacity when they need it most — dealing with the inevitable aftermath of what they’ve said. The key, again, is preparation. If leaders spend time carefully crafting messages that blend the right degree of diplomacy and directness, tailored to those hearing it, they will be far better prepared to deal with what comes afterward. Isolate your own discomfort with or fear of their defensiveness or anger; write out the message in clear, nonjudgmental language in no more than two to three sentences. Then deliver the message within the first two minutes of the conversation —no long wind-ups, no small talk to delay or warm up. Use the remainder of the conversation to process what they’ve heard, ask questions, vent, or clarify. Make it about their needs, not yours.

Facing high-risk decisions. For routine decisions, most leaders fall into one of two camps: The “trust your gut” leader makes highly intuitive decisions, and the “analyze everything” leader wants lots of data to back up their choice. Usually, a leader’s preference for one of these approaches poses minimal threat to the decision’s quality. But the stress caused by a high-stakes decision can provoke them to the extremes of their natural inclination. The highly intuitive leader becomes impulsive, missing critical facts. The highly analytical leader gets paralyzed in data, often failing to make any decision. The right blend of data and intuition applied to carefully constructing a choice builds the organization’s confidence for executing the decision once made. Clearly identify the risks inherent in the precedents underlying the decision and communicate that you understand them. Examine available data sets, identify any conflicting facts, and vet them with appropriate stakeholders (especially superiors) to make sure your interpretations align. Ask for input from others who’ve faced similar decisions. Then make the call.

Solving an intractable problem. To a stressed-out leader facing a chronic challenge, it often feels like their only options are to either (1) vehemently argue for their proposed solution with unyielding certainty, or (2) offer ideas very indirectly to avoid seeming domineering and to encourage the team to take ownership of the challenge. The problem, again, is that neither extreme works. If people feel the leader is being dogmatic, they will disengage regardless of the merits of the idea. If they feel the leader lacks confidence in the idea, they will struggle to muster conviction to try it, concluding, “Well, if the boss isn’t all that convinced it will work, I’m not going to stick my neck out.”

The right blend of conviction and openness sets the stage for others to participate in surfacing an untested solution that builds on the leader’s best thinking, but refines it with the inputs of others. This collectively energizes a leader and their team, preparing the organization for putting the idea into action. Facilitate this type of problem-solving conversation with careful intent. Establish the persistence of the issue, what solutions have failed, and why. Clarify that you want the team to choose the solution with you. Make it clear you are looking for new ideas, not a defense of failed solutions or rehashed versions of them. Build a shared set of measurable criteria that you believe depict a viable solution. Own any biases you have for particular untested solutions, and ask the team to treat them no differently than ones they generate. Have the team surface their ideas. Rate all ideas, including yours, against the established criteria, and most important, surface all assumptions underneath your views.

The more stressful circumstances are, the more a leader can benefit from a wide range of options to choose from. Reverting to extremes may create a false sense of comfort in the moment but set up disaster in the end. There are no complex challenges in the world for which there are only two possible solutions. The minute you find yourself torn between two extremes, assume that both are limited, step back, and build a broader menu of options. That’s where you’re likely to find your optimal choice.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 . Connect with him on Twitter at ; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.



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