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Stressed decision-making is a C-R-I-M-E

Do you ever commit this type of CRIME?Stressed thinking

When we are stressed we are emotionally charged. Our higher faculties become overwhelmed by the brain’s instinctive survival mechanism and our every impulse is to act instantly, dynamically and unthinkingly.

As a direct result of this emotional hijacking we manifest defective thinking patterns and these are pretty ruinous if we are trying to make a decision. Just at the critical moment when we need to make a rational, well thought through, and balanced appreciation of a problem, with careful evaluation of alternative solutions, we blunder through a five step sequence of C-R-I-M-E.

  1.     Crass oversimplification of the problem
  2.     Rapid broad-brush solution - one grand idea
  3.     Inability to listen or consult, we are 100% right
  4.     Mad rush to act – “Do it now” syndrome
  5.     Euphoric delusion

Stressed thinking

Step 1. Crass oversimplification of the problem - When emotionally aroused we tend to jump to a drastic oversimplification of the problems at hand. Things appear very dramatic, black or white and extreme. There is little room for subtleties and we tend to ‘catastrophise’, such as thinking that missing our train is suddenly ‘the end of the world’.

Step 2. Rapid broad-brush solution - one grand idea - We tend to come up with just one grand simplistic idea to solve things. It can seem at the time vividly brilliant but there is always a vagueness ascribed to this potential solution. We overlook or lose sight of the detailed picture. Complexities and subtleties are avoided. Crucially, second or third alternatives are overlooked or instantly discounted. Steps one and two mean that when stressed we can easily try and tackle the wrong problem with the wrong solution.

Step 3. Inability to listen or consult, we are 100% right - Perhaps most disastrously we have an unshakeable belief in the absolute correctness of the solution that we have decided upon.

Nature designs stressed thinking to give us an overriding confidence in our own sense of direction; taking immediate dynamic action is the priority in a life-threatening event. So when stressed there is a strong emotional tendency to believe we are right and everyone else is either wrong or, at least, their views become irrelevant to us. Unfortunately this overconfidence is less than useful when the requirement is to make a rational assessment of the situation, partly based on an ability to listen to other points of view and patiently glean the precise facts upon which to base a decision.

Step 4. Mad rush to act – “Do it now” syndrome - Compounding the last catastrophic feature, we feel compelled to make immediate decisions or take immediate action. This is the classic knee-jerk reaction to events. Stressed thinkers are impelled towards making a ‘quick fix’ solution.

Step 5. Euphoric delusion – After the quick fix comes the euphoric feeling of success. Unfortunately this high is entirely delusional. This emotion is simply a biochemical event and is nature’s way of rewarding the decision-maker for arriving at a quick decision. The elation in no way reflects the poor quality of the decision just made.

There are variations to emotionally-charged thinking.

Sometimes, instead of speed, stress provokes the impulse of procrastination and even paralysis, like the rabbit petrified into inaction when caught in the headlights. Otherwise stress can provoke denial of its very existence. This is the classic head in the sand response.

Whatever the reaction, a stressed response to the sort of problems we are confronted with at work is almost universally useless.

Most of us are hopefully not experiencing extreme states of panic, however, many people do get weighed down with low-grade stress and anxiety. Even this low state of anxiety can provoke sufficient emotional arousal to trigger the five steps of stressed thinking.

Reinventing management thinkingThe above is an extract from Jeremy Old’s ‘Reinventing management thinking – Using science to liberate the human spirit’

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