Thursday, October 22, 2009

CLUES Anxiety and poor decision making

Does anxiety ever cloud your ability to think clearly and make the best decision?

A couple of days ago, driving home from swimming training, I began to hear a ‘click-click-clicking’ sound. It seemed to be coming from the front of my car.

In a nano-second, I was on red alert and in the grip of The Almond Effect®.

My mind was racing: ‘I can’t have a flat tyre here – I’m in the middle of 3 lanes of traffic. I can’t get out of the car to check if I have a puncture because I’ll get run over. Oh no, I’m going to cause a traffic jam and then they’ll report it for everyone to hear on the radio. I can’t pull over but if I keep driving, I’ll be driving on the rim and that will be dangerous – and expensive!’

I became aware of my heartbeat speeding up and vivid memories of being stuck in the spiral loop of a multi-level carpark flooding back – which is what happened the last time I had a puncture, several years ago.

Crazy thoughts

On and on my amygdala worried:

“I can’t ring my husband because he is inter-state and can’t help. It’s already late and I have an early morning teleconference tomorrow that I still have to read the papers for. And if I don’t get home til late and am too tired to read the papers properly then I won’t be fully prepared for the meeting and that will be embarrassing and I’ll let my colleagues down. And I look a mess; my hair is still wet from swimming, my make-up is half-on and half-off. What an idiot not to have cleaned off all my make-up before I got into the pool.”

All these thoughts in just one or two seconds because my ears picked up a ‘click-click-clicking’ sound that I didn’t even know for certain was coming from my car!

Name the emotions

As soon as I noticed my heart starting to race I applied my STAR approach: Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.

I took a deep breath, and said to myself: “I am feeling anxious, frustrated and embarrassed.”

You’ll recall that neuroscientists say that doing this calms down our amygdala and this creates space for our pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, to work.

If you think of our amygdala as a smoke alarm, when we recognise and acknowledge the emotion we’re experiencing, we turn off and reset this ‘danger radar’. It’s like saying: “Got it - thanks for the warning – I’ll look into the problem now and find a solution.”

My rescuer was also experiencing The Almond Effect®

I took the chance – and kept driving as home was only a few kilometres away. I was extremely fortunate that I made it safely. The next morning, the Roadside Assistance patrol man arrived! He found a roofing nail lodged in the tread of the front tyre.

While he was changing the tyre for me, I mentioned that I had read that his organisation had posted a significant financial loss for the year. The press reported that services and jobs like his were at risk.

In an instant, I saw him in the grip of The Almond Effect®. My helpful rescuer told me what he and his co-workers were thinking. He said they had found out about the financial losses through the press and a voicemail after the announcement had been made.

He said that the drivers figure that crunch time for jobs and services will be in about 18 months time when the EBA comes up for renewal.

And as they, the drivers, thought about it some more, they believed this was all going to be about the EBA due for renewal in some 18 months time.

The driver continued to tell me all the things that he and his mates had worked out: how much the salary bill was for the patrol drivers, what the membership income was, how much the organisation had spent on a failed business venture, how many jobs will be lost, that the organisation really just wanted to bring in contractors, and so on. He also talked about the CEO and his failures (so they perceived) in other companies and how they believed that he was taking this organisation down the same path.

I’m sure much of it their number-crunching came from ‘back of the beer-mat’ calculations that may or may not be correct but their fears and disillusionment with the organisation were very real.

Communication vacuums breed fear

I don’t know what information the organisation has shared with its employees nor if anything that the driver told me is true. But what I do know from this conversation is that this driver’s ‘almonds’ (amygdalae) and those of his mates were aroused and on high alert as a result of the stories in the newspapers.

As a consequence, they were automatically in fight/flight mode, thinking of the worst possible outcomes and preparing to defend themselves from the ‘threat.’

I have seen this situation in many of the organisations that I have worked with. What results is that employees start focussing so much on the perceived threat that they take their attention away from their main priority i.e. doing their jobs to the best level they can – to the detriment of all stakeholders.

How many of you work in organisations where an information vacuum is created or misinformation spreads? For example, management is so busy protecting itself from external threats – what will shareholders and/or analysts say – that they lose sight of a major internal threat, namely how staff will react if they have to learn about their future from the media?

Leaders have to hold their nerve

Although the worst of the global economic crisis appears to be over, fear and anxiety in employees remains high.

This is one of those critical times when leaders need self-discipline to Stop and Think before they Act. This will be hard if the leader is enduring The Almond Effect® but doesn’t realise it.

That could happen if they aren’t aware of The Almond Effect® and the role the amygdala plays even in non-life threatening situations. Or they haven’t developed the skill of recognising and responding appropriately to the physiological signs that our fight/flight response activates before our conscious brain kicks in.

Understanding this automatic brain activity is a fundamental component of developing self-awareness. And self-awareness is the core skill that distinguishes effective leaders from the rest.

How to do it
Self-aware leaders learn how to catch themselves in the clutches of The Almond Effect® before it clouds their judgment. This way they mostly avoid making poor decisions based primarily on irrational emotional responses not cognitive thinking.

There is no magic bullet to develop this skill. It’s takes commitment and practice. One way to start is to reflect on a past decision that didn’t deliver the outcome you had hoped for – this is Rewiring in STAR. It provides an opportunity to assess whether you would have made a different decision if you were in control of your emotions.

What were you feeling at that time? If you find it hard to remember exactly, recreate as much of the context and the situation as you can. It helps to describe it to someone or out loud to yourself. Write it down if you prefer. As you do this, your brain will take you back to that time and place and you will be able to recognise your emotions at the time.

When you have a handle on these, ask yourself whether the emotions were helpful or unhelpful? If they were unhelpful, where could they have been coming from? What could have triggered them? If you can, keep exploring until you work out whether the unhelpful emotions were based on some past experience. Then explore the similarities between the past experience and the one in which you didn’t make the best decision. There will be some fruitful learning in that.

Sometimes it’s not easy to find the source of the trigger. In that case, and in any event, train yourself to recognise your emotional state at any time and to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire. If you don’t then don’t be surprised if anxiety and other related emotions cloud your judgment and interfere with your best decision making skills.