Decision making is something we do every day – left/right, up/down, fast/slow, now/later, buy/sell, and numerous other daily choices. Stress is also a normal part of everyday life, and especially so in business, and is present in all professions and industries. Its effect on decision making depends on our ability to recognize it and then having a predesigned plan for handling that stress. This article discusses how to recognize stress and its effect on every day decision-making from the perspective of an ordinary business executive, and offers some solutions for handling that stress.
Although useful, this brief article only touches on the subject of stress. We invite you to investigate the plethora of resources available for a more lengthy discussion of the topic, including licensed professionals.
What is Stress?
Stress is an inevitable and necessary part of life; just the right amount of stress adds motivation and heightens our individual response to meet any challenge. But this is not the stress we want to discuss in this article. We want to discuss the stress that is generated when we exceed our ability to cope with the situation at hand, generally resulting in a substandard level of performance.
What are Stressors?
First, let’s talk about what causes stress; we call these stressors. Stressors fall into three general categories — physical stress, physiological stress, and psychological stress.
Physical stress can be generated when conditions associated with the environment, such as temperature and humidity extremes, noise, vibration, and lack of oxygen are not what we expect or are outside our previous experience. But in most cases the mere presence of these conditions generates stress.
Physiological stress is generated when physical conditions, such as fatigue, lack of physical fitness, sleep loss, missed meals (leading to low blood sugar levels), and illness affect our ability to cope. Note that these physical conditions are all within our ability to control.
Psychological stress concerns social or emotional factors, such as a death in the family, a marriage or divorce, a sick child, a car accident, an argument with a spouse, or a change at work. This type of stress may also be related to mental workload, such as analyzing a complex problem or making decisions sooner than we would like.
It is not how much stress we face, but rather how we handle stress that determines its effect on us. However, too much stress or stress over a long time results in our inability to cope effectively, leading to diminished capability. This continuing stress can have residual health issues, which then generates additional stress in our lives. It can be a never-ending cycle, unless we come to grips with it.
It is also important to recognize that individuals respond differently to these stressors. We also note that some individuals have become very adept at hiding the effect that stress is having on them. A cheerful countenance does not necessarily mean that stress is absent.
Effects of Stress
The effects of stress can be subtle or obvious; in either case, it’s important we understand the effect on us. Stress affects us in four major areas — physical, mental, behavioral, and professional. If we are aware of these effects and recognize their onset, we can take action to offset the impact they have on decision-making.
The physical effects of stress can result in headaches or heartburn or upset stomach which are otherwise unexplained or new, muscle aches or tight muscles, slurred or slow speech, increased blood pressure or heart rate, shallow or difficult breathing, chills or dry mouth or sweating, and numbness or tingling or coldness in the extremities.
The mental effects of stress can result in difficulty thinking, defensiveness, forgetfulness, fatigue or exhaustion, poor task performance, anxiety, or a state where small things now become big things.
The behavioral effects of stress can result in loss of appetite, attempts to place blame on others, becoming accident-prone, impulsive or aggressive outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, withdrawal and isolation, sleep problems, or deviation from standard operating procedures.
The professional effects of stress result in job burnout, absenteeism, poor working relationships, low morale, high turnover rate, lawsuits, and accidents and incidents.
Solutions to Stress
Before we can develop a plan to manage stress, we must recognize stress and its effect on us, as discussed above. We generally recognize stress by its effect on us or by recognizing that we are entering upon an activity that generates stress. In addition, sometimes the way we think determines how we react to stress; are we a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person? Generally, positive thinking people handle stress better.
It is of utmost importance that we modify any negative, self-critical, or self-defeating mental patterns. In their place, we must create supportive work and personal relationships. Here are some tips for coping with stress that can be accomplished at home.
• Exercise regularly by walking 30 minutes a day; this is in addition to the walking you may do at work.
• Get adequate sleep; at least 7 ½ to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for most adults.
• Practice good nutrition; be aware of the effect of certain foods.
• Avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; these items do not reduce stress, they merely hide it.
• Practice relaxation techniques; for example, take a deep breath and hold it, let out half and hold it again, and then exhale completely. Most TV is not relaxing!
• Find some self-renewal activities, such as continuing education, hobbies, sports, meditation, family activities, volunteer activities, etc.
We can practice stress reducers at work as well; here are some suggestions.
• Plan, anticipate, and schedule; getting caught off guard generates significant stress, so be sure to plan ahead! Also, when you expect (and plan for) the unexpected, it is not unexpected!
• Communicate often and well, in the office and in other professional meetings. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns on issues that affect you or the business. Remember, though, be positive; no one likes to be around a “doom and gloom” type person.
• Take short walks and find other opportunities to stretch your legs; this also helps you take deep breaths which can be relaxing and invigorating. While sitting at your desk, stretch out your legs and point your toes away from you and then toward you several times.
• Pace routine and “boring” tasks; perhaps set aside a time in the morning or afternoon to accomplish these mundane tasks, while also setting aside prime time to be creative. Let others know your schedule so they don’t interrupt unnecessarily.
• Maintain a positive mental attitude; have a vision for the future. Those without vision will soon perish.
• Know and respect your personal limits; don’t be unduly pushed to perform.
• Maintain proficiency not only in your professional skills, but also in basic office skills such as using a word processor, using a spreadsheet, and knowing how to conduct effective meetings.
Modes of Thinking
You’ve probably heard that some people think differently than others do. You may have heard that one person is left brained or right brained or whole brained. You may even have heard that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, whatever that means! The thing to remember is that we are not all the same. Don’t expect different people to react the same way to the same situation.
However, a good leader will take time to understand the people he works with so he can understand how each thinks. In other words, when a leader understands people, he or she will make affective assignments, thereby helping decrease the stress he creates in their professional lives.
Here are some very general thoughts about how left brained, right brained, and whole brained individuals approach situations.
A left brained individual does things from a logical perspective, is highly organized, is good at keeping track of time, and easily handles spelling and mathematical patterns and formulas. He or she rarely uses gestures when talking and likes to make lists and detailed plans; they like to observe and are rational, objective, and analytical.
On the other hand, a right brained individual does things from feelings, and appears to act randomly and have a general lack of organization. They often have no sense of time and are not great at spelling or mathematics. They generally do use their hands when talking; they take life as it comes and like to touch things. They are intuitive and subjective.
A whole brained individual is hard to categorize. One moment they are left brained and the next they appear to be right brained and sometimes it appears they are thinking from both sides of the brain. If that seems awkward to you, think how it must be for them!
So, how does this affect your stress levels? If you are right brained, and are put into a left brain situation, you will feel stress. Likewise, if you are left brained, and are put into a right brain situation, you will also feel stress. A good leader will recognize these differences and will not make inappropriate assignments. More importantly, if you understand yourself, you will not take on projects that require skills you don’t have.
Recognize your mode of thinking and accept the differences that occur in the opposite situation and don’t try to push a square peg into a round hole! This is where teamwork is most effective. In fact, assigning a combination of right brained, left brained, and whole brained individuals to a problem can result in a faster, and many times, a better solution.
Other Techniques to Manage Stress
It may look like some people have intuitive decision-making skills unaffected by stress; and some do. Bless them! But for the rest of us, the majority, we need to develop techniques to manage stress.
When we understand people, including ourselves, we are better able to manage stress. When we successfully manage stress, we make better decisions. One way to do this is to add a few modern books on decision-making to our reading list. We can also study risk management principles. When we are informed, we are seldom caught off guard.
Although some people are born with good judgment, the rest of us can learn how to make good decisions. One way to do this is by developing a standard operating practice, a checklist if you will, for different situations. When we follow standard procedures we keep stress at a manageable level.
Just like air traffic controllers, we should always have a plan B already developed in case plan A doesn’t work out. Again, being prepared reduces stress.
When we consciously make an effort to recognize stress, we are already managing that stress. By practicing stress reducing activities, we maintain our ability to cope with the stress that comes into our lives. When we have a predesigned plan for handling stress, we will discover that our level of performance improves.
Go back, now, and re-read this article, paying special attention to those things you can do to recognize stressors. Then take steps at home and at work to manage the stress that has a negative impact on your performance; even the seemingly little suggestions will help. Not only will your performance improve, but you will feel like a new person!