Researchers have generated a lot of information about decision-making under pressure. At least two facts that arise are that it is important to (1) be able to manage your stress response, and (2) manage your decision-making strategies. Both of these factors can be learned and improved.
Almost every job may require you, at some point or another, to make good decisions under pressure – whether that be making a decision with a limited amount of time, being required to ensure absolute accuracy or excellence in the decision, or ensuring that the amount of damage/risk from a decision is limited as much as possible.
There are some occupations that inherently require excellent day-to-day decision-making under pressure such as air-traffic controllers, pilots, emergency service workers, doctors, project managers, financial traders, senior managers etc.
People can improve their decision-making under pressure in a number of ways, but two broad categories are stress-management, to allow your mind to process decisions well, and developing good decision-making strategies.
Studies have found that stress affects decision-making ability depending on the source of stress. Under stress due to time-pressure, stress generally worsens decision-making due to forcing a person to use sub-optimal strategies and to become overly conservative and sensitive to negative information. If the stress is due to increased performance expectation, stress can actually improve decision-making to a certain point, after which too much stress worsens decision-making.
When you are put under pressure to make a decision, first take toll of your stress level and actively manage it throughout the decision-making process otherwise your focus may become too narrowed and lead to a poor decision.
Rapid stress management strategies that you can learn:
• Controlled breathing
• Mindfulness mediation – spending 5 minutes aside to purposefully not engage with your thoughts – let them just flow, don’t dwell on them. Focus on your natural breathing.
• Progressive muscle relaxation
• Grounding – spend a few minutes just focussing on your senses. For example, feel the arms of your chair with your hands, press up and down on the floor with your feet, hold and feel the details of your pen/desk/stapler, focus on someone’s voice or a neutral conversation.
• Use positive imagery, e.g., quiet place or successfully meeting the challenge ahead
• Environmental stressor removal – actively remove or move away from extraneous stressors (eg find a quiet office, put off answering emails/calls, turn-off radio, shutter windows etc)
• Reframing – change your viewpoint on the problem, change your expectation from a possibly negative to a positive outcome, see the problem as an opportunity to prove yourself.
• Share the problem – speak with a calm down-to-earth colleague about the problem
Managing decision-making strategies:
• Examine and prepare against your own decision-making biases under pressure. For example, a tendency to make hasty decisions, jumping to conclusions and fearing judgement. Cognitive distortions can be more pronounced under pressure, such as, ‘black and white’ thinking, catastrophizing, overgeneralising and emotional reasoning.
• Examine your personal values and how they affect your decision-making.
• Create and practice emergency decision-making procedures for issues that you might encounter. Much as pilots practice emergency landings and instrument-less navigation, we can predict scenarios in our own workplaces that we might have to deal with.
• Learn (and practice) a good general process for decision-making under pressure. For example, practice the process below on make-believe pressured scenarios that could occur in your job.
1. Examine the Context – step back and take look at the ‘big picture’ surrounding the decision.
What is the actual decision to be made?
When does the decision have to be made by?
Who will be affected by this decision?
What are possible long-term and follow-on effects from the decision?
Is there a procedure I can follow or is there someone who can guide me?
2. Gather the Details – now step closer and look at the fine details of the decision.
What is all the information relevant to this decision?
How important is each fact? – discard irrelevant data
Give importance weightings to each fact.
What are the possible alternatives?
Can I get additional useful information within the timeframe required?
3. Assess the Impact of each decision – objectively assess strengths and weaknesses for each alternative. Examine the possible opportunities and potential threats that could arise. Step back to the ‘big picture’ view again and think about the impact of each decision on each of the individuals/groups affected based on financial, business, legal, physical, psychological, emotional, and political outcomes etc.
4. Decide – sequentially eliminate the worst alternatives until you are left with the best alternative.
If your ability to make decisions under pressure is poor you can improve your ability with education, training and practice to cope with a high pressured job. However, psychological resilience is perhaps the most important factor in successfully taking on high pressure jobs. This is the ability to brush off hardship and failures, and get back on your feet to try again and again until you succeed. Resilience is a combination of natural ability, experience and training your mind to be resilient.