The Disruptive Power Of Stress

Photo: Pixabay/PDPics

I had a plan. On the first leg of the flight to Reno, I would work on a new webinar series and on the second leg of the flight, after connecting in Vegas, I would work on materials for a client.  I worked steadily during the first flight until the medical emergency happened that I wrote about earlier. By the time we landed, I was flustered and upset, and I knew it. After deplaning, I called my sister and a friend to help me calm down. Even so, some residual stress lingered.  But, I was calm enough that I decided to get the rental car and drive to my Reno hotel.

Walking through the baggage claim area I noticed signs for Mariah Carey, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s tour, and Penn and Teller. “Wow,” I thought, “I didn’t realize that Reno had such big acts.” I boarded the rental car shuttle and again thought, “I’m surprised that Reno has a rental car shuttle. I expected it to be a small airport with rental cars at the terminal.” On the bus, I reset my watch and again thought, “Hmmm. 9:30am. I thought I arrived in Reno later than that.” As I pondered the work I completed on the flight I thought, “I expected to get more done.  I didn’t start the client work that I planned for the second leg of the flight.”  The SECOND LEG of the flight! I only took one flight.  Where am I? Looking out the bus window I saw the skyline of the city: tall buildings, desert landscape and the Eiffel Tower and an Egyptian Pyramid. Vegas. I was on the rental car shuttle in Vegas…not Reno.

My decision-making fell victim to a brain compromised by stress and the power of confirmation bias.  “Fine, Shelley,” you think, “But what does that have to do with work?” Everything.  Each workplace squabble, each passionate disagreement, or each set of hurt feelings creates stress and compromises the brain. Stress makes it more likely that you’ll see and hear what you want to see and hear – which is confirmation bias. I forced everything in the Vegas airport to conform to my belief that I was in Reno.

How can you ensure that you don’t make a bad decision under stress?

  1. Know when you are stressed. You probably know when you’re under considerable stress.  You may not fully appreciate smaller instances of stress. When your boss gives credit for your work to someone else; when you have another tense conversation with THAT person in the office; when your big project is due but everything goes wrong with the deliverables. Each of these and many more generate stress.  Learn to your body feels when under stress – tightness in the chest, constricted breathing, sweaty palms. Pay attention to whatever it is for you.
  2. Take steps to reduce your stress. Do you know what reduces your stress? In my situation, I needed to talk to someone(s) who would understand and care about me while I calmed down. What can you do?  Take a walk around the block, take a coffee break, share with a friend, call your kids, write about your feelings.  Whatever it is, do it. If you don’t know what calms you, figure it out or try different approaches until you have a workable strategy.
  3. Either postpone big decisions or get an objective observer to assist. Your stress-reduction approach will help but there may be lingering impacts that color your brain’s functioning. Under stress, the brain is more likely to force-fit everything into its existing mental models. For big decisions, it’s best to postpone the decision until the next day when your brain has settled and you have perspective about the situation. If that’s not possible, seek out input from others with differing points of view to validate your decision.

Luckily, I managed to return to the airport and catch my flight to Reno. For you, don’t hope for luck. Learn to recognize your stress level and take steps to moderate its impact.

Shelley Row
Shelley Row works with forward-thinking managers and leaders who must make fast, insightful decisions in the face of uncertainty and rapid change. Shelley’s original research through 77 executive interviews revealed the secret to effective decision-making: Use information and intuition. That research is validated through neuroscience. But Shelley’s work is grounded in more than just her research. Her life experiences taught her to think, feel, and act…and it made all the difference.