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How to keep stress from clouding your team’s decision-making

By Verne Harnish

When our brains are under chronic stress, it is hard to make great decisions. In the unprecedented business environment the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, many leaders realize that to “scale forward” successfully, they will need to find ways to manage the stress they and their teams are experiencing, so they have the mental space for the kind of innovative thinking that’s necessary right now. 

Doing all we can to stay out of what psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo calls “red zone” – hitting a 7 or higher level of stress on a scale of one to a peak of 10—prevents our physiological reactions to stress from hijacking our rational thinking. 

“A stressed out brain is one that cannot make significance, isn’t able to trust and is really lousy at implementing strategies,” as Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect, said at Scaling Up Summit 2.0, Leading the Recovery.

Why stress is bad for decision-making

There are biological reasons chronic stress—including work-related stress—can take a toll on our physical and mental health. When we perceive danger, our amygdala—a part of the brain involved in emotional processing—sends a signal to the hypothalamus, the central command center in the brain, which tells our sympathetic nervous system to activate the fight-or-flight reaction so we can mobilize quickly. 

Normally, our parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on the fight-or-flight reaction once a threat subsides but under chronic stress, the brain may continue to perceive danger. This can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which can contribute to health problems, such as heart attacks or strokes. It may also affect our mental health and, in vulnerable people, contribute to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. 

Three ways to reduce chronic stress 

The best way to avoid the effects of chronic stress is putting into place regular rhythms that will help you and your team become more relaxed and mindful.  “I believe organizations have a moral calling to help their employees deal with this,” says Lombardo.

Lombardo recommends the following strategies:

The 3×5 approach: At least three times a day, take a five-minute break to do something healthy to reduce stress. This may be taking a walk, playing the piano if you are working from home, doing deep breathing, meditating or picking up the phone and calling a loved one. At the same time, she recommends limiting consumption of social media and the news, which can take a toll on your mood.

Replace fear with empowerment. Stress can immobilize us with fear—but there’s an antidote: “Focus on what you can do right now,” Lombardo advises. 

To help your team keep moving forward when confronted with the unexpected, consider offering resilience training. “I’m quite certain, moving forward, that trainings on resilience, stress management, emotional intelligence and being self-aware are going to be absolutely critical,” says Lombardo. “Organizations that are helping their employees, giving them skills training and time to practice those skills are going to have more engaged employees. They are sending a message we care about you.”

Let go of perfectionism. In an uncertain environment, it’s often better to release a product when it’s 70% ready so you can see how the market reacts to it than to invest a few more months in making it perfect. What was perfect in the past might not resonate in the same way today—and you’re better finding that out before you’ve bet the farm on it. “Focus on progress and the opportunity to learn,” says Lombardo.

Ultimately, we can’t control the stresses the business environment sends our way. However, we can control our reactions to it—and the leaders who make coping in healthy ways a priority for themselves and their teams will find they are far more resilient and able to make the most of opportunity. 

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.