The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions

Stress Effects book cover

Today we have Dr. Henry L. “Dick” Thompson. He is the President and Founder of High Performing Systems, an international management, consulting and training firm he founded in 1984 to help leaders, teams and organizations achieve high performance. He has a great book called The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions.

Dr. Relly Nadler: He is an expert in dealing with stress in a variety of settings.  I came across him in research for my book, Leading with Emotional Intelligence and was very thrilled in the work that he is doing.

Let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Dick Thompson. He is an internationally recognized consultant, educator, speaker and author. For over 25 years he has gained valuable experience developing and leading teams from the battlefield to the boardroom. He has a 21-years in military service that has resulted in exceptional management insight and expertise. He was an officer with the US Army Special Forces Group: The Green Berets. He was decorated for heroism and has trained and led some of the most elite teams in the world. He has worked for the military on high-performing battle staff and his continuous operation was instrumental in the success of the US forces in the Gulf War.

He has hands-on experience working with folks who are right on the front line. He has held the honor of being one of the US Military Subject Matter Experts, an SME, on stress on the battlefield. His research has covered the impact of stress on decision making, cognitive performance, aggressive behavior, sleep deprivation, leadership and emotional intelligence behavior.

He has a series of clients, from AT&T, Shell, Mohawk Industries, and Titan America, just to name a few. He has a Masters and a PhD in psychology from the University of Georgia. Dr. Thompson was also the department chair and professor at University of Georgia where he taught advanced courses in leadership and team dynamics.

I saw Dick’s research in one of the books that he is a co-author of, Developing Emotional and Social Intelligence—we have a lot of folks who are interested in EI on our show—the research was phenomenal about stress so I used some of it in my book. He also has a background in a variety of assessments, Myers-Briggs that we all love and use, the FIRO-B, he was a student of Dr. Schultz who started the FIRO-B. In the Emotional Intelligence world he is certified in the EQi and actually certified to train the trainers in the EQi 2.0 and other EI models.

We are going to talk with Dr. Thompson about how stress affects our decision making and why smart leaders make dumb decisions.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I’m looking here at your bio and it appears to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you have found the time to become a master scuba diver, you have made over 900 freefall parachute jumps, I have only 50 myself, and you have also earned a black belt in Karate, so I’m fascinated. How does somebody who is so action oriented get into the intellectual pursuit of emotional intelligence?

Dr. Dick Thompson: I’ve always been interested in science and in fact I started out in chemistry and found myself on the battlefield leading men in combat. It dawned on me one day, this is not so much about chemistry it’s more about people and understanding people and I need to learn more about them. What motivates people, why do we do what we do and how can I be a better leader. Understanding myself and then understanding others would help me do that. As I looked at the things we did, being a ranger, special forces, all that kind of stuff was action oriented, there is an interpersonal component and obviously an emotional component, but there is an interpersonal component that is taking place in terms of how people interact, how they work together as a team.

Back in those days, we typically referred to it as interpersonal interaction. Later on we began to use the term Emotional Intelligence. That was having such an impact on how leaders led people, following leaders on bonding with people on the team that I wanted to learn more about it, I wanted to study it, I wanted to understand it.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Dick, what I appreciated is the long history that you have been doing this. One of the things, to me, that I am fascinated by is I think early on you were one of the key people, probably 20 years ago, seeing the relation with stress and performance. Maybe you could say a little bit about how that connection happened—I looked at some of your stuff that was from the 80’s where you really started along that path and have continued ever since.

Dr. Dick Thompson: As I watched people’s performance under stress I could see a lot of variation. In fact, one of my mentors was a guy named Dick Meadows who is a legend in the Special Operations field. Working with him and being in combat with him, watching how he handled stress, was just unreal. Then I would see other people on the other end of the continuum. Again, wanting to understand more about it, I started to pursue that line of research and study, conducting experiments to see what would go on. Like you also mentioned earlier, I became one of the Subject Matter Experts for the Army in terms of stress on the battlefield; how to control it and how to use it to your advantage.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: In your book, The Stress Effect, you talk about why smart leaders make dumb decisions. You have a chapter on how stress levels affect decision making. Can you talk a little bit more in depth about how these smart leaders just get dummied down so easily?

Dr. Dick Thompson: Well, on a basic level, if you think about what I referred to as a Stress Effect which really is the change in human performance resulting from exposure to stress. When we are exposed to stress our brain actually takes a chemical bath. For short term, it might make us run faster, jump higher, and do things like that. If it lasts a while it begins to degrade our access to our cognitive intelligence, our IQ and our ability to make logical decisions. What my research has shown is not only does it impact our cognitive ability it also impacts our emotional intelligence, our ability to make emotionally intelligent decisions.

As our stress level goes up our IQ goes down, our EQ goes down, and both of those are key components of effective decision making. All of the sudden, the two critical components that we need have been degraded and we end up making decisions that are not very effective at the time. As the stress begins to go away, then we gain more access back to our abilities again. Under stress, you are just not going to make as good of decision as you do without.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You have some great research on IQ’s, what is the average IQ of a CEO?

Dr. Dick Thompson: Great question. As we work with clients, and we have done that over the years and worked at different schools and institutions, senior leaders were coming in and we were collecting data on them. We built a substantial database for leaders at different organizational levels. Part of that is their IQ or mental ability. We are able to go back and look and say, well, what is the IQ of a CEO at different size organizations. What we find is that when you look for an average you end up with about 120-125 for the average CEO which, if 100 is average, 125 is a pretty smart person. They are well above average.

Obviously we will have some people at 140 or more, but not very many. The average is around 120-125. That gets you a person that has more than enough cognitive ability to make some very sharp decisions. They don’t normally get into those CEO positions without being very bright. It’s almost like it’s the price of admission. If you get there, you get to the Executive level, you are going to be up in that IQ range. So the people you are working with are all very bright, but then sometimes they don’t make very good decisions.

Dr. Relly Nadler: For our audience, IQ is 100 +/- 15, 15 is the standard deviation. If you are 115 and above you are at a high average. Many of these folks are almost 2 standard deviations above the norm.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You have a chapter about stress resilience in emotional intelligence, what do you find as some of the most effective tools to assist leaders with stress?

Dr. Dick Thompson: A lot of the military Special Ops snipers use a technique called tactical breathing. There are four deep breaths to relax the system, to calm the heart rate down, and to relax before they engage a target.

I do triathlons. I don’t know if you have ever seen the swim start on a triathlon but when you dump several hundred people into the water all at the same time and they all start swimming, they are swimming across each other, kicking and hitting; it’s just brutal for the first couple 100 yards. I use tactical breathing just before the horn goes off to start the swim. I do it just to relax, get calm and get in my little cocoon and forget all about the other people—just go in the water and start swimming; not letting getting hit or kicked cause me to panic. That is a technique that you can use.

Meditation works. If you know that you are going into a stressful situation you could do some meditation before. Do meditation when you are coming out of it. Do the progressive relaxation where you are starting with your toes and tensing and relaxing, working your way all the way to the top of your head. I use biofeedback sometimes.

Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the neuroscientists we have interviewed in the past, Matthew Leiberman at UCLA, talks about the inverse relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Anything that accentuates the prefrontal cortex can help reduce some of the hijack. One of the tools that Cathy and I talk about is the Emotional Audit. You count to 10 and then ask yourself these five questions which are prefrontal cortex questions:

  1. What am I thinking? How did this happen to me and why is this going on?
  2. What am I feeling?
  3. What is it that I want to see happening here?
  4. How am I getting in my way?
  5. Ok, now, what do I need to do different?

Those are some things that we would call the emotional audit to gauge what is going on when you are counting to 10.

Learn what the acronym ARSENAL stands for and how you can use it for stress resiliency—hear more about the Amygdala hijack and how it affects your IQ. Listen to the complete recording of our discussion without commercials, above.

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