How to Make Good Decisions in High-Stress Situations

June 15, 2020

How to Make Good Decisions in High-Stress Situations

Managers are under pressure to figure out how to respond both internally and externally to current events, and how to effectively manage teams during these tumultuous times. Strong leaders stand out by being able to make good decisions in high-stress situations.

But that’s not always an easy task.

“We can all benefit individually and collectively from preventing stress from becoming the enemy of good decisions,” says Becki Saltzman in her new course, Decision-Making in High-Stress Situations.

Learn more in the course "Decision-Making in High-Stress Situations."

How you think about and deal with stress can help you make better decisions—and that’s what the world needs right now. Follow these three strategies from her course to guide yourself and your teams to calm, confident, and productive decision making during times of crisis.

#1 Bring calm to a high-stress situation

High-stress situations take many forms. Maybe you have to lay someone off and they’re angry or devastated; or your team is facing backlash from a recent communication. Many people are being asked to take on difficult initiatives to navigate this moment. 

Whether you’re in the office or in a public setting, when panic sets in, you have an opportunity to act as a positive force to bring people down to earth. 

Saltzman offers a valuable checklist to encourage others to follow your lead: 

  • If you’re in person, first get panicked people to look you in the eye. “If you're leading a bunch of people, start with getting the most panicked person to look you in the eye,” says Saltzman.

  • Validate how people are feeling by saying things like “I know you’re scared...” or “I can see you’re uncomfortable...” When you acknowledge their personal truth, it communicates that you “get it” and you “get them.” 

  • Lower your voice and slow down. This will help others calm down and ensure you’re heard and understood the first time.

  • Prioritize objective truth: What are you going to do? What might happen along the way? Why are you qualified to lead? (Because you’ve planned and prepared for this type of scenario.)

  • Assure their safety and communicate that you will all get through this together.

#2 Prioritize time-sensitive decisions

When you’re in a high-stress environment, like many people are in this moment, focus your attention on time-sensitive decisions. 

Ask yourself: is there a time-sensitive deadline that’s causing me stress? Or am I bringing self-imposed stress to this decision? 

As Satlzman explains, stress stems from your internal reaction to a situation. In comparison, a situation that is high-pressure involves external forces that are driving you to take immediate action. 

Let’s say you need to figure out how to care for a sick family member. That is something you need to address right away. But if you’re a manager tasked with making layoffs next quarter, you have time. That’s certainly a stressful decision, but if you rush in and make a hasty decision before you’ve taken time to assess the situation, it may result in a poor outcome.

“Tease apart your stress and the pressure you feel to make a decision, and you can often give yourself more space, less stress, to make better ones,” says Saltzman.

#3 Don’t make decisions on the spot

We’ve all been put on the spot in a meeting or Zoom call to make a decision that impacts the team. It’s normal to feel like you need to answer right away, but the reality is it’s perfectly okay—and a sign of a strong leader!—to take your time. 

It’s far better to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly than respond quickly. 

“In a panic, we offer solutions too early before all available options are considered,” says Saltzman. 

Especially if you’re feeling judged or evaluated in a high-stress moment, allow yourself an appropriate amount of time to step away, consider all angles, and return with a well-reasoned decision.

As Saltzman advises, you can say something like: “I know we're in a hurry and these decisions are important, but science is clear that my decision making, and all of our decision making, is better when conducted offstage. I will get back to you in two days with my answer.”

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