Stress Effects: How do Stress Levels Affect Decision Making


Dr. Henry L. (Dick) Thompson is the founder, president and CEO of High Performing Systems, Inc., an international management consulting and training firm he founded in 1984 to help leaders, teams and organizations achieve high performance. The philosophy of HPS is based on a systems approach to performance improvement. Clients are Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and a diverse group of public, private and international firms.

Numerous command and staff positions during his 21 year military service have resulted in exceptional management insight and expertise. During that time, he trained and led some of the most elite special operations teams in the world. He served as an officer with the U.S. Army Special Forces Group (Green Berets) in Vietnam and was decorated on several occasions for heroism. His work for the military on high performing battle staffs and continuous operations was instrumental in the success of U.S. forces in the Gulf War.

Dick is the author of The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions – And What to Do About it.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: In your book, Stress Effects, you talk about why smart leaders make dumb decisions, and 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 get dummied-down so easily?

Dr. Dick Thompson: Just on a basic level, if you think about what I referred to as the 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 of that nature. But if it lasts a while, it begins to degrade our access to our cognitive intelligence – our IQ; 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.

So, 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 decreases, we gain more access back to our abilities again, but under stress you are just not going to make as good of decisions as you do without it.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Cathy and I have been talking more about how easy it is to lose IQ points. Just from a communications standpoint it stands out. No smart person wants to say they lost IQ points. You have done a really nice job laying that out on how someone will lose their IQ points and how they can gain them back, in your book. One of the first things I saw was what you used as a model and you went deeper than most people; the catastrophic leadership failure. This was in the handbook of Developing Social and Emotional Intelligence. You kind of named that process. Can you tell us a little bit about that model and the chart that really states the characteristics that people might not be realizing that they are losing IQ points, but you have stated all of the key symptoms.

Dr. Dick Thompson: One of the things that I discovered that I use a lot with executives when I am introducing the topic is when I did the research around sleep loss. One of the things that I found was that after 24 hours without sleep, the average person loses about 25% of their ability just to do simple arithmetic; to add and subtract simple numbers. that surprises people to some degree. What really surprises them is they are not aware of it. They think they are just as accurate after 24 hours of sleep deprivation as before.

I can see the mind turning in the CEO I’m talking to who says yes, when I’m tired I don’t think as well. If I say something like, “if you had to take an IQ exam tomorrow, would you stay up all night tonight and go out partying?” They would say, “no”. If you can relate to something people can identify with, they understand. But then I say the other component in the decision process is emotional intelligence. It also degrades. I have a ton of research that shows how it changes under stress. Then you start to get that buy-in and they want to know more about it; what do I do to make better decisions? In reality, they already do some of the things. You just have to coach them and help them in other ways to keep the stress level down.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Dick, you have been working on integrating the work around emotional intelligence into many aspects of your work and you are obviously a certified trainer, highly capable assessor in the EQi. How does emotional intelligence, in your mindset, tie into dealing with daily stress that leaders are naturally going to experience as a result of their roles, whether they are on the battlefield or in the boardroom?

Dr. Dick Thompson: It’s having an impact on how we respond to the people around us, how we express our own emotions or don’t express our emotions, but particularly how we are interacting with other people.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We talked about this model of stress IQ and EQ, In your book, you have some of the characteristics of some of the behaviors. Like you said earlier, some people may not know it. If anything sounds familiar you may be losing IQ points:

  • The quality of your decisions may be down.
  • You may be flip/flopping.
  • There may be short-term focus on decisions.
  • Reactive decisions.
  • Being defensive.
  • Unintentional blindness–missing things.
  • Anger facilitated decisions.
  • Mental paralysis.

Those are some of the things that you are talking about. If you lose some of your access to your IQ, how long does it last?

Dr. Dick Thompson: It depends. How much you are going to lose depends on how high your stress level goes. Then how long your lose it depends on how long your stress level stays up at a very high level. If you are stressed out all day long, you are going to be degraded all day long. When you hit those high levels of stress, sometimes you can’t make a decision.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  Let’s say someone gets hijacked; we are all familiar with the Amygdala hijack, and the brain is flushed with Cortisol, how long does it take. What is a normal time frame where they get back to normal, they are not so high-jacked? I have heard a lot of different research.

Dr. Dick Thompson: If I am just plodding along and I’m having a normal day and all of the sudden I encounter some significant stresser, I get a shot of Cortisol, and really there are about 1,400 different chemicals that are released throughout my system. It takes the average person anywhere from 3-5 hours to get their chemistry back to where it was before the stress occurred. That is assuming no other stressers happen to you in the interim. You won’t stay hijacked the entire time, it might be 20-30 minutes and you’ll almost be acting normal again but not making great decisions.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It’s interesting that we have specialized in resilience, the science of happiness for some time. That is a sweet spot that I roam around in often. We do know that fear and appreciation cannot co-exist in the brain at the same time because the pathways that control the passage of those chemicals that you are talking about that give us the negative bath, can’t use the same pathways if we are in a state of optimism, positivity and resilience.

You have a chapter about stress resilience in emotional intelligence. I’d love to hear about some of the most effective tools you have found to assist leaders with this.

Dr. Dick Thompson:  Well, one of the things that I have found that is very simple, but it works, is what your mother taught you when you were a little kid when you got really upset and she said, “take a deep breath and count to 10.”

Sometimes we think that sounds silly, but it is actually doing what you were just talking about. If you take a deep breath you start to engage your sympathetic nerve system and start to be able to get control. When you count to 10 you have to engage your prefrontal cortex and start doing logical thinking. As soon as you do, you have to let the emotion go in order to do the logical part. So by counting to 10 it puts some time and distance between whatever it was that upset you and the emotion that you were experiencing.

You can prepare your ARSENAL – stress resiliency system:

  • Awareness.
  • Rest.
  • Support.
  • Exercise.
  • Nutrition.
  • Attitude.
  • Learning.

Learn about tactical breathing, meditation before and after, progressive relaxation, and more to handle the stress in your life. Listen to the complete recording of our discussion, without commercials, above.



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