Making Tough Decisions Under Pressure
How the best leaders make the toughest decisions—when it matters most
“Making good decisions is a critical skill at every level.” —Peter Drucker
“It turns out, making a tough decision is a game of inches.”
These sage words of truth came from Dr. Daniel (Danny) Friedland, and they got my attention. He was referring to the inches that separate the neocortex, your “thinking brain,” from the amygdala, located in a survival-oriented region of your brain. (That’s the more primitive part that controls things like fight or flight.)
Unfortunately, this life-saving part of the brain can also lead you to make reflexive and regrettable decisions in business and in life when you’re under pressure because it doesn’t have the capacity to think things through.
That’s where Dr. Friedland comes in. As a medical doctor, he’s spent a lifetime studying how the brain works, and as the CEO of SuperSmartHealth, he’s turned his passion for leadership and brain function into a rabid following that includes a “who’s who” list of business leaders who want their teams and their kids to make better decisions.
We’ve all made bad decisions. Think for a minute about the crazy, life-threatening decisions you made as a 17-year-old. If you’re like me, you sometimes feel lucky to be alive.
Now think of the worst decision you’ve made in business. According to Dr. Friedland, these decisions have a lot in common with your stupid teenage ones, and most can be avoided with the right practices and processes. The “secret” is making sure it is your neocortex, and not your primitive brain, that is guiding the decision process.
Although Dr. Friedland was pointing at a diagram of the brain when he made his “game of inches” comment, it was actually my heart that was most affected by his presentation.
He had just finished a conversation with a room full of kids and their CEO parents. As he talked with the kids (including mine) and adults in the room, it was easy to see that both groups were dealing with important decisions. While the kids were struggling with, among other things, the peer pressure around drugs, alcohol and fitting in, many parents were wrestling with gut-wrenching people, personal and career issues.
Everyone was trying to do the right thing, and many were simply stuck.
Dr. Friedland has a heart for kids and adults with big decisions to make. He has just written a book on the topic with his 14-year-old son, Zach. He says it’s the most important thing he’s ever done.
The Big Decision is a parable followed by a process that Dr. Friedland designed to help leaders—kids and parents alike—understand how the brain can make better business and life decisions under pressure.
In the book, he uses his son’s story about playing in the championship football game or attending his favorite aunt’s wedding to outline a process that breaks down decision making into four simple steps.
Although it seems relatively simple, he designed the process based on the science of how the brain works to allow people to get the most out of their gray matter. Here is a high-level look at the process:
1) First, Frame The Question
Before jumping to solutions, take the time to thoroughly consider the challenge you are trying to overcome. Here are some of the framing questions he suggests you ask:
- What are my choices?
- What are the possible outcomes—short and long term?
- What are my most important values and goals?
- How will this decision affect those most important to me?
2) Find Your Answers
Now, it is critical to calm your mind. Here you want to create the optimal conditions for your brain to work so the answers can “find you.” Some ways to make this happen:
- Practice deep breathing exercises, like those recommended in meditation practices because they actually help set up the brain for success
- Take a light jog or go for a walk
- Take a warm shower or relaxing bath
- Ask yourself a question just before you go to sleep and notice what may arise in your dreams or just before you wake up (your brain works while you sleep)
3) Evaluate Your Answers And/Or Decisions
“When your values are clear, making decisions becomes easier.” —Roy E. Disney
By this point in the thinking process, your initial answers may now have you leaning toward a decision. Here are some questions to help you make sure it is the right one:
- Does it feel “right” more than just feel “good”
- Is this good for others and me?
- Do the rewards outweigh the risks?
- Is this the best decision over the long term?
(Remember, it is just as valuable for you CFOs to ask these questions as it is your 15-year-old.)
4) Apply Your Decision
Now it’s time to find the courage and willpower to take action on your decision.
Here are some tips from Dr. Friedland to make this happen:
- Rehearse in your mind what to say beforehand (practice breathing if you feel stressed)
- Make sure you are well-rested, hydrated and nourished before taking action
- Set a date and time to take action
5) After The Fact
To ensure you stay on track with what you ultimately want to achieve, after you take action, circle back to step one and again frame your questions, such as:
- Did I make the right decision?
- Did I achieve what I hoped I would?
- Is there anything else I need to know?
Remember that whenever you try to innovate, there is fear. Fear causes your teams to make really bad decisions at the very moment their decisions matter the most.
I’ve written in the past about my favorite three questions to ask when trying to make a critical decision under pressure, but there is no arguing with Dr. Friedland’s expertise when it comes to how the brain functions.
He created his decision-making process with brain functions in mind. So there is hope for all us. Given time, patience and practice, we can all help our brains make better decisions—even when we’re 17.
Article originally published Apr. 11, 2014, on Forbes.com