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

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.

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