Decisions with Less Stress: 6 Steps for Leaders
Read Time: 9 minutes, 6 seconds
Stress is the hallmark of tough situations, and yet stress itself makes it even harder to pull yourself and your team out of those situations.
Leaders often have an overwhelming sense of responsibility—so overwhelming that it interferes with their ability to see what is working, what needs changing, and what is actually under their control. Stress comes not only from that sense of responsibility but also from the pressure of finances and team management, interactions with vendors and customers, and the need to constantly stay ahead of competition.
Yet, when stress levels are high, the quality of decision making plummets. As one business owner explained, “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re in the middle of a problem to see everything going on.” Decisions with less stress are better decisions.
A study cited by the Association for Psychological Science found that the negative impact of stress on decision-making, including risk aversion and antisocial behavior, increases during the first hour after a stressful event. What can you do in that first hour to decrease your stress and increase the quality of your decisions?
Your first temptation in a stressful situation may be to find a target to blame. But placing blame or making a judgment does not change the situation or produce solutions. Acceptance frees the mind to think of new possibilities. Once you accept the reality, you can figure out how to deal with it.
Acceptance also extends to accepting your own limitations. You have a team. Make use of it. This is theme that will occur again as prime component in making decisions with less stress.
In the face of a problem, often the most comfortable action is to declare a solution and move on.
However, quick fixes are notorious breeders of unintended consequences. They inhibit research, which prevents new and relevant information from being considered, and short-change creative thinking, which could bring about longer term, more profound, and more helpful solutions.
When you slow down, you give yourself and your team a chance to settle; stress may still exist, but at a level that doesn’t interfere with decision making. Time lets you gather the information and skillset you need to solve the problem and focus on what will improve the situation immediately, while you look for long-range solutions.
TIP: Speed of response is essential in emergencies but most leaders face very few real emergencies. Most stressful situations are quicker to resolve when leaders allow time for the other steps listed here.
Affirm the Positive
Negative thinking takes many forms: “I am not good enough. If I had more money, I would be happy. If I exercised more, I would be happy. I am a fraud.” The stress of negative thinking drains your ability to clearly see a problem, let alone find a solution to it.
By purposefully directing your awareness away from negative thoughts, you decrease this source of stress. You free yourself to hear the contributions and concerns of others and to consider the wider effects of your decisions.
The following mantras—or any other that you favor—will help you relax, accept, slow down, and listen:
- This is but a moment and this too shall pass.
- This moment/situation/event is not my life. My life is what I make of it after this moment is over.
- I am stronger than I feel.
- I’m doing my best right now and that’s all I can ask of myself.
It also may help to remember that very few decisions are permanent and unalterable. Most of the decisions we make have consequences, but most consequences are temporary: to quote another common mantra, life goes on.
You are stressed. What would you need to do right now to remove the stress—if you had the time? Perhaps “escape to the Bahamas” is out of your control, but taking a walk, listening to music, reading, calling a loved one, or playing a game are well within your immediate control and can open up new ways of thinking and behaving.
Prioritizing free time gives you a chance to break your routine and de-stress. In fact, some companies insist that their employees take vacations and reward them for spending time away from normal projects, because they know that stress undermines good decision making and new experiences enhances it. By taking charge of your priorities, you break your habitual responses to stress and decision making; you give yourself time to look for response that might work better.
Ask yourself: “What am I required to do; what must I do that nobody else can or should do for me?” Whenever you can, delegate or remove a task from your list. Recognize when a problem or responsibility is not yours to assume. Learn to say, “No.” Limit your goals to what is achievable and attack them in small increments over time. Understand that taking a break is different from running away.
You stress affects your entire company.
A study of 1,100 employees found five main causes for negativity: mentally tiring work, time pressure (especially if it interferes with family time), too many changes, insufficient feedback, and lack of influence on the job and how it’s done. Underused skills are also a prime cause of stress.
Under pressure of a crisis, you may neglect the effect of stress on your team and create situations that impinge on their time, face them with too many changes at once, and leave them floundering and feeling unappreciated. By seeking help from your team in dealing with the issues that stress you and allowing them to participate in finding solutions, you establish a partnership that increases everyone’s ability to think clearly and act decisively.
Outside help can also bring in resources that you lack—resource limitations are a prime cause of stress. Whether those resources are extra people, increased funding, or expert advice, they all work to make decision making and implementation easier. An outside perspective also expands the possibilities for creative problem solving.
TIP: Leadership is not a blanket acceptance of responsibility. Your ability to recognize the need for help, reach out for resources, and involve your team in solutions helps build a more resilient team and culture.
Take a Single Action
If you accept the classical definition, stress is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” You would, therefore, expect that stress would decrease as soon as the body responds to the demand. Unfortunately, the easiest actions may be chosen first, including risky behaviors, addictions, or withdrawal.
One STAR model (there are several different models under that name) suggests targeting specific objectives, then taking small steps to reach those objectives. Taking small steps has several advantages: it controls risk, allows for easier course correction, and reduces the negative responses to change.
The first step in action also moderates the urge to gather more and more information while the situation itself and the sense of helplessness continues to worsen. In studies of depression, people who were able to move on to solving problems were most likely to reverse that sense of helplessness and reduce their stress.
TIP: A partial response now may create enough time for a long-range solution, even as it permits decisions with less stress.
Stress is a natural response to difficult situations but it can get in the way of clear decision making. To make decisions with less stress, accept that the situation exists, slow down, practice affirmation, prioritize, accept help, and take that first, small step forward.