Cometh the Hour, Where is the Man?
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
Decision Making Under Pressure
Every day we make decisions – most of them we don’t even notice and are fairly inconsequential. Others may need a quick turnaround – such as when we’re driving and need to reassess the traffic or our route. Others still may hold significant consequences - like applying for a home loan, or taking a large block of leave. The thing about making decisions is that no matter how inconsequential or significant the impact is, the ability to make the decision doesn’t change… until we introduce stress.
At Tel Aviv university, in Israel, in 1987 a study found that students who were exposed to even very-low-level stress consistently made poor decisions. This trend continued even when the stress was something the students could control. The students who were provided with the same decisions under calm, controlled conditions made the right decision almost 100% of the time.
Think about the stressors faced everyday in the security industry. Even when things are all going right, the security professional is often the first point of contact for the public who need help, for victims of assault of harassment, or in the case of executive protection and bodyguarding they are the trusted guide for their client. Even the fairly benign pressures of being “on the spot” can gnaw away at our ability to assess situations and make good decisions at the right time.
Now consider when the day goes bad.
To the unprepared, even the threat of a violent encounter can be overwhelming. Being confronted with the sudden burst of high pressure from a violent encounter, or from vehicle accidents or protests or customer complaints can breakdown decision making processes and cause a freeze – the inability to assess a situation, let alone make a sound decision to affect the situation. Think about a time when you were faced with a confrontation that took you by surprise: could you respond? Or did you think of the perfect thing to say 20 minutes later, over a coffee with a friend?
Well, that’s the good news, in part. The key word in the previous statement is “unprepared”. There is no magic trick, no one is naturally a better decision maker under pressure – there is only prepared, and unprepared, and preparing yourself isn’t a dark art. The first step is to recognise and manage our stress levels.
How do you recognise stress? At the most basic level, think about how you feel when you go to work – are you thinking about what you might do, or look forward to seeing whoever you’re going to be on shift with? Do you take care to prepare your uniform or daily dress? Or do you wake up dreading the shift? Do you do the bare minimum to prepare yourself? If the latter sounds familiar, you’re probably dealing with a lot of stress at work.
Mindfulness and self-care have developed a sense of buzzword in recent years. But the ongoing management of stress and pressure shouldn’t be dismissed. Reducing our long-term stress not only aids in building a better family or personal life, but builds a better base for making clear-headed decisions when we need to without the build-up of white noise drowning out our thoughts.
Our partners at Mindset Psychology offer a suite of stress-management and performance counselling, including the Building Better program that addresses developing resilience, responses to change, and time management – all of which can help optimise your planning and decision making strategies.
As a start, it might help you to consider the following points:
Don’t let stress motivate your decision.
As we’ve discussed, understanding your scope and conducting some pre-planning will help in this
Ensure you re-evaluate any snap decisions once the situation has calmed down
Schedule daily “de-stressing”
20-30 minutes per day
Whatever makes you feel better – no matter how frivolous or silly
Leverage your support
Part of any daily reporting should include outlining your plans for any contingency you have forecasted for the next day for feedback.
Regular conversations with your GP can help identify and deal with any stress that is having a detrimental effect on your work or personal life.
How do we use this? What does it all mean? When we apply this to the security context, the way stress affects our decision making – the false sense of urgency stress causes can “Blinker” us like a racehorse to other, better actions. Consider the example of the Israeli experiment earlier. Even when the stressors were able to be controlled by the subjects, most of them simply tried to “push through” and make a quicker decision to minimise the effect. Unfortunately, this approach just drove them further into more stressful situations.
If it’s possible, always take a “tactical pause” – all this really means is having a minute or two to compose yourself, gather your thoughts, and assess the problem a step back from the stressors. With even just a little distance, the ability to make a better decision increases incredibly. But how do you find the time for a tactical pause when the decision needs to be made now? That’s where snap plans, or drills come in handy.
Using Immediate Drills, and Snap Decisions
An immediate drill is a series of actions everyone in a team takes automatically when something happens. They are usually focused on three objectives: gaining information, making the scene safe, and buying some time for a sound decision to be made. A good example of this comes from the world of First Aid – DRSABCD. In this drill, we know exactly what to do at each step. We can do it almost without thinking, because its something that is practised and rehearsed over and again before we need to use it, and we gain the information we need to make a decision on treatment while making sure the situation doesn’t get any worse for the casualty.
Developing effective team drills isn’t easy, though, and can be made harder when teams don’t work together regularly. One way to overcome this is for managers at the operations level to develop company-wide standard operating procedures (SOP) so that at least everyone is “on the same page”. Another, particularly useful for team leaders or supervisors working on joint teams for special events where developing immediate drills is completely impractical is to use snap decisions. A snap decision is a less desirable way of achieving the objectives of the immediate drill – it requires a decision to be made, but shouldn’t commit the team or individual to a set course of action that can’t be changed. The advantages of a snap decision is maintaining the perception of control, which can help in reducing the build-up of stress, and knowing exactly what base you are working from. Don’t be fooled by the name, though – snap decisions were anything but spur of the moment. To use snap decisions, a security professional needs to gather as much information as they can before the event – what access points does an area have? Where are the first aid kits? AEDs? Where do guards need to go if there are emergencies? Armed with this information, we can start building some ideas for solutions to the problems we are likely to encounter. Now we have a framework of options we can put into action quickly if we need to – deliver a snap decision to get those first three elements working, then use the time while that is happening to take a tactical pause and evaluate, revise, or reinforce the plan.
Tools to Aid Decision Making
There are many tools and processes available to help improve decision making under pressure – the military teaches all its leaders an appreciation process, which organises information and thought processes. The RMIT school of business prefers Hypothesis-Based Assessment for problem solving. Former US president Dwight D Eisenhower developed the Eisenhower Box to help de-stress his planning.
There are too many options to explore in this article, although our consultants regularly facilitate professional development sessions that explore some of them, and might help you or your teams find the right process to help improve the crucial skill of making good decisions under the pressures of the job.
Mindset Securities (NSW M/L 000101961) is a licensed security provider. We’re ready to help you address your unique security needs, and can provide consulting and seminars to aid your organisation’s professional development.
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