Learning how the brain interprets and processes stressful situations can help the decision-making process in high-pressure environments
We initially became interested in decision-making as a topic because of insights and evidence from the gender diversity debate. Organisations with both women and men on the leadership team in relatively equal numbers perform better on a range of measures including profitability, productivity, risk, customer satisfaction and staff engagement. And the reasons why? Researchers put it down to better decision-making:
- ‘companies with strong female leadership deliver a 36 per cent higher return on equity, according to the index provider MSCI’ (World Economic Forum, 2015)
- ‘companies ranked in the bottom quarter in terms of gender diversity on their boards were hit by 24 per cent more governance-related controversies than average’ (World Economic Forum, 2015).
However, women are frequently criticised for their decision-making. They’re allegedly slower at making decisions, wanting more evidence and are more risk averse. This is seen as a negative by organisations that are used to more masculine models of leadership.
On the flipside, we know that testosterone drives a bias toward action, competitiveness and risk taking, so men tend to make decisions faster. However, a too-fast decision isn’t always a better decision, and certainly a too-slow decision doesn’t get anyone anywhere fast. Additionally, when stress, anxiety or fear is added into the mix, no one is great at making decisions. In fact, we’re wired to bypass the logical parts of our brain when under pressure, which makes great decision-making really challenging.
What’s your normal?
We’ve all had those awkward moments upon confronting something that challenges our perception of normal and may represent itself as fear. For each of us, it’s relative to our temperament or ‘set-point’ of normal. For nearly everyone, the symptoms of fear visit us as a range of reactions, from that queasy stomach churning and the weak-at-the-knees feeling, or our minds have gone completely blank and we struggle to speak or decide upon a course of action.
For instance, if you have a fear of spiders then you will react very differently to the arachnid displays at the zoo when compared with the zoo-keeper responsible for the care and well-being of that particular enclosure. For that particular person, working in close proximity to spiders is business as usual. The same can be said for the window cleaner suspended by ropes 35 floors above the ground that casually goes about ‘just another day at the office’. Yet to the person with a fear of heights and even a person who has never experienced heights from outside the building they work in, it may be a giddying experience for them until they have experienced it enough times or long enough for the body to adjust and absorb this experience as ‘expected’ or ‘normal.’
It’s Mother Nature’s fault
If you have ever experienced difficulty in decision-making when under pressure, don’t be alarmed. It is a biological reaction to stress that scientists are only recently discovering. The amygdalae are two almond-shaped structures located deep within the brain. It’s long been thought that this ancient and primitive part of the brain reacts to perceived danger by triggering a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. It sends a signal to release adrenalin, quickening the heart rate, speeding the breath and preparing us to get out of danger – fast. This is often equated with our caveman ancestry. Earlier studies have shown that under high stress, the brain tends to shut off the cortical networks involved in creativity, contemplation, planning and thinking abstractly. While that sounds counterintuitive, it’s actually a benefit – at least when you are facing physical threats. Taking time to consider your options is not advisable while being chased by a tiger.
However, scientists are now realising that stress can have a huge impact on the prefrontal cortex as well. This is the part of the brain that evolved most recently and doesn’t fully develop until after your teenage years.
The prefrontal cortex holds the circuitry we need for abstract thought. It allows us to concentrate on the task at hand while storing useful information in temporary storage for later on. It also prevents you from performing inappropriate actions and is basically the command centre for the brain.
Research in this area has been conducted at many universities around the world. One such study conducted by New York University subjected 80 adults to an experiment to investigate brain function further. The researchers monitored the participants’ physical stress response and used brain scans to examine the regions that were activated while people were subjected to stressful situations and imagery (Hermans et al, 2011).
As expected, the situations and images produced emotional distress, raised participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol and elevated their heart rates. In the brain, the most active regions were part of the ‘fight or flight’ network, including areas that monitor the body’s internal state, regions involved with fear and other emotions, and those involved with orienting attention. The more cortisol released, the greater the strength of the signalling seen in this network. Meanwhile, the parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in thought and reasoning began to shut down.
That means, basically, that under stress, the brain automatically shifts its focus away from current activity and toward readiness for fight, flight or staying very still. That’s why high stress can ‘make your mind go blank’ at the worst possible moments. A faster but more primitive neural network takes over. Time seems to go into slow motion – the technical term for which is called ‘time dilation’ (Kotler, 2014).
How does this perspective fit with adverse situations?
As tasks become more complex and uncertainty increases, pressure will build, leading ultimately to stress and anxiety – which then leads to difficulty in making decisions.
If by the previous examples you are thinking that you must regularly experience emergencies or high-pressure situations to become skilled at handling them, resulting in situations of chaos becoming your new ‘normal’, then yes there’s a large degree of truth in that. However, setting fire to your office so that you can gain some emergency experience isn’t going to win you any kudos from your work colleagues, no matter how well intentioned your motives. This is where some training and, most importantly, practice or exercises fill the void.
During an emergency, leadership is a pivotal tool to galvanise those you lead into action to respond to a situation that may pose a life-safety threat. Learning to overcome the fear and take control of our biological programming that’s trying to help us is a worthy endeavour.
Preparation is key to preventing stress from blocking the ability to solve problems. When US Airways Flight 1549 was disabled by birds after taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport on 15 January 2009, Captain Sullenberger, a pilot with 19 000 hours of flying time, decided in less than two-and-a-half minutes to land in the Hudson River. He did this so skilfully that all 155 passengers and crew members survived. Experts noted how Sullenberger’s many years of experience had equipped him to respond calmly and solve the problem effectively under extreme pressure.
Russell Boon has also conducted many observations on human performance under stress, the results of which support that you don’t have to practice under as much stress as you’re actually expecting in an actual event. To practice high-pressure situations, you simply need to experience a modest dose of whatever you expect under real circumstances.
The solution lies in training the limbic system of the brain to experience pressure and discomfort in either a positive or a neutral manner, as opposed to a threat. Stated differently, we are interested in training ourselves to be resilient in uncomfortable conditions. Here are some helpful hints to help you overcome pressure situations.
Give up fear of failure
Fear of failure is a problem for many people. Some people are so afraid to fail they never try to do great things. Put another way, fear of being wrong often prevents people from making a decision. If you are afraid to fail, you will be too paralysed to really excel. In an emergency there is benefit in failing fast. That is, enacting your decision promptly and taking action, and if the decision turned out to be wrong, discovering that quickly and re-evaluating based upon new data. Accept that nobody is always right.
Focus on past success
Our own visualisation of failure often brings it to fruition. Instead of remembering how bad you previously did something, instead focus on your past success. Visualisation techniques are utilised by athletes and business professionals alike. This is the value of emergency management training and exercises. Think back to the procedures and processes that resulted in the successful emergency exercise you last participated in. Recall how easy it was to put an emergency plan into action when there was no risk from an actual emergency. Visualise those procedures resulting in a successful outcome now and you will find that procedures come to mind without you having to actually think about it, you just ‘know’ what to do. That’s the real value of exercises.
Don’t fear things in proportion to your ignorance of them
Some people make things much worse in their own head than they are in reality, causing themselves more pain and greater fear. Often, when we examine fear, we see that it’s just the unknown portion that scares us. We often fear what we don’t understand. Information often provides the confidence during an emergency to base decisions upon. Conversely, information overload has been scientifically proven often to induce paralysis in the recipient.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
During emergency conditions it seems that everything is happening at once and yet information is hard to come by. Under pressure, the perfect solution and time to develop and evaluate that solution seldom exists. Don’t strive for perfect when good will suffice.
Accept that pressure-related discomfort is normal
The goal is not to banish it. If we seek to exterminate it, we only make our fear of pressure greater. Practice being more accepting of pressure-related discomfort. Few situations elicit pressure like that of an emergency. Emergencies are seldom straightforward, requiring decisions often based upon incomplete data, made under tight timeframes.
Welcome and embrace pressure-related discomfort
Learn to love pressure. Use the power of relabelling which teaches the brain to interpret pressure in a new way. Even tell yourself that you can’t wait to feel pressure, and that you love how it makes you feel.
Practice under pressure conditions
Too often we practice our skills in non-pressure situations. We mentioned earlier that we should focus on our past successes during training exercises and how discharging our responsibilities in the absence of an actual emergency allows us to become comfortable with the requirements of our role. However, sooner or later, it is better to devote some of your practice time under pressurised
conditions. Initially, the goal isn’t to get it right, but instead to become accustomed with pressure-related situations.
Practice under imperfect conditions
The world seldom lines up perfectly. The first rule of emergency management is: ‘emergencies never happen when you are expecting one and they are seldom convenient’. It is far better to practice in imperfect conditions where there are distractions, annoyances and interruptions. With practice, these imperfections are neutralised, and can in many cases facilitate performance improvement.
Build up your discomfort tolerance
Since the limbic system’s fear response is related to perceiving discomfort as a threat, it is important to strengthen its reaction to discomfort. Learn to feel more at ease in other discomfort conditions, such as fatigue, hunger or uncomfortable temperatures. Building your discomfort tolerance in other contexts increases your tolerance of discomfort and your resilience under pressure.
Summary – practice makes perfect
There is much you can do to improve decision-making and performance under pressure. If you operate under the notion that discomfort is something to avoid, then pressure will continue to feel daunting. But if you learn to welcome and retrain your brain’s reaction to pressure, discomfort and imperfect conditions, then you can significantly alter your fear response to pressure. Experimenting with the above strategies, as well as conceding that Mother Nature is working against you, can make a profound difference in shrinking the over-sensitivity of the survival instinct and the brain’s fear centre’s reaction to pressure.
Feature image: Photo by William Warby. Used under CC BY 2.0.
Hermans E J, Van Marle H J F, Ossewaarde L, Henckens M J A G, Qin S, Van Kesteren M T R, Schoots V C, Cousijn H, Rijpkema M, Oostenveld R, and Fernández G, 2011. ‘Stress-Related Noradrenergic Activity Prompts Large-Scale Neural Network Reconfiguration’, Science Vol 334, Issue 6059, pp 1151-1153.
Kotler S, 2014. The rise of superhuman: decoding the mysteries of the ultimate human performance. Quercus, London.
World Economic Forum, 2015. ‘It’s official: companies with women on the boards perform better’ Available online https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/12/its-official-women-on-boards-boost-business/