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When the going gets tough - the tough get....WORSE

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Our decision making and performance deteriorate under pressure. How can we deal with this? What can we do to minimise the impact of pressure and stress? Read the full article here.

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When the going gets tough - the tough get....WORSE

  1. 1. When the going gets tough - the tough get …. worse! THE PERFORMANCE MYTH Recently we’ve been working with a number of organisations that regularly operate under pressure. These have included emergency services organisations, market traders and even businesses that need to respond to rapidly changing and uncertain market conditions. In management and leadership roles, one of the key elements of performance is the quality of the decision making that leads to action. So, how does pressure affect decision making? Given that business conditions are becoming more difficult and leaders are under increasing pressure to operate effectively in these conditions, what does this mean for the way we have to develop our thinking and decision making capabilities (1)? We’ve all been told that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, implying that high performers perform best when placed under pressure. But worryingly, evidence from research is clear - whether in sport, business or relationships - performance deteriorates under increasing pressure (2, 3). We know that pressure will affect the way we think, reduce our physical skills and make us more emotional in our decision making. © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 1 Dr Norman Chorn Dr Terri Hunter
  2. 2. WHY DOES PERFORMANCE DETERIORATE? Although pressure and stress can be defined differently, increased pressure often results in stress (4). And stress has a significant impact on the way the brain functions and the quality of our decision making and performance. It happens in three ways: THE IMPACT OF STRESS Stress affects our sense making by narrowing our focus and limiting our ability to find creative solutions. Decision making becomes more emotional and defensive in style. And behavioural skills are downgraded as our psychomotor abilities are impaired. The table below outlines these effects in further detail. © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 2 How we make sense of information or events How we make decisions about possible actions Our ability to take action ❶ ❷ ❸
  3. 3. Knowing that the brain is affected in these ways, what can we do to improve our performance under pressure? © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 3 Sense-making We narrow our focus and become obsessed with the problem, rather than possible solutions This is the way we experience the world. In extreme physiological stress, we are inclined to interpret information with a reduction in our peripheral vision. Our perspective is narrower and we become focused on the “problem” rather than identifying solutions. We default to our Narrative Network, a filter that interprets information and events through our intentions, concerns and memories. In order to prepare the body for “danger” - a natural response to stress - there is a change in the mix of neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate the brain and body. This results in a lowering of mood and motivation, and generally heightens the sense of fear in the way we experience events and information. These factors combine to produce a more risk averse view that magnifies the perceived threat in information, events, and the world in general. Decision making We default to reflexive decision making - an emotionally driven and often defensive style Stress causes a reduction in overall cognitive ability, impairing decision making, mental flexibility, memory and attention spans. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the so-called executive function of the brain, literally slows down or shuts down completely. When the PFC is depleted, the limbic system takes over and we resort to reflexive decision making - a largely non-conscious form of decision making that is fast, instinctive and emotional. Reflexive decisions are primed by pattern recognition and can be misled by making superficial comparisons with previous experiences. In addition, the connectivity of the amygdala (the fight or flight centre) is heightened. This increases the fear response and levels of emotional reaction. These factors combine to produce higher levels of defensiveness and fear-driven decisions. Action Our psychomotor performance skills are impaired - even for tasks in which we are normally skilled Stress also produces a downgrading of behavioural skills. High levels of stress will impair the connectivity between the brain and the muscular-skeletal system of the body, thereby reducing our psychomotor performance skills. We simply become less adept at those activities we are normally able to perform in a skilled manner. These reactions to stress have been observed in high performance athletes, skilled surgeons and accomplished business executives.
  4. 4. HOW TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE? There are three types of initiatives that can assist in limiting the impact of pressure and stress on performance: A. Calm the brain B. Attend to the present C. Be sensitive to your body.
 A. CALM THE BRAIN A central principle in our modern understanding of neuroscience is that the brain has an overarching goal - to minimise danger and maximise reward (4). Given this, a key strategy is to “calm” the brain by reframing the situation faced by an individual. Focus on downplaying the sense of impending danger in the situation - and in some cases, increasing the perception of a possible reward. This reframing improves our sense-making capability and increases our chances of finding a creative solution rather than simply focusing on the problem. It prevents cortisol flooding, a natural response to danger, which in turn prevents an overly negative and pessimistic outlook. Finally, it maintains a more active pre-frontal cortex, thereby preventing the limbic system (with its heightened fear and emotional reactivity response) taking over. Examples of this strategy include: • think of high pressure moments as a (fun) challenge, not a life-or-death threat • focus on the immediate task rather than the outcome • concentrate on those factors you can control, rather than those you can’t • chunk the challenge or problem into smaller ‘bites’ - reducing the level of overwhelm • categorise and define the problem you face - naming it will “normalise” it and minimise its impact • flash back to your past successes - and try to keep positive. B. ATTEND TO THE PRESENT This sounds straightforward - just pay attention to what’s happening now! But it’s not that easily achieved. The goal here is to stay focused on the facts and events in a non- judgemental and calm way, without forming early opinions or jumping to conclusions. The ability to experience things as they are happening in this way is generally termed mindfulness, and has attracted enormous attention in management and personal development (5). The evidence is pretty conclusive. We know that mindfulness improves © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 4
  5. 5. our cognitive and decision making abilities, enhances self regulation and has benefits for our behaviour and psychomotor skills (6). Being mindful means that we activate a very different neural pathway in our brain. The direct experience network (7) allows us to focus and concentrate on what is happening in the present in a calm, non-judgemental manner. It’s not the usual way we experience the world - normally we interpret events and information through our values, preferences, memories and goals. Because of this, we really need to practice mindfulness in order to activate the direct experience network in our brain and be able to address the situation in the ‘present’. Some of the ways of achieving this include: • try to “stay with” what is happening at any point in time - concentrate and focus only on the information and the event as it is revealed to you • recognise and “accept” the feelings and emotions that arise as you experience the information or event - but don’t react to these feelings or emotions • observe what is happening - but remain disengaged from the event by viewing it as “outside” of you • create purposeful pauses during your day - take a short break (even 1 minute) between meetings and go for a short walk without engaging anyone • use the transitions between tasks wisely - don’t just pick up the next task when finished the first - use the short time between tasks to revisit your priorities and purposefully decide on what to do next. There are many references in the popular press to simple mindfulness practices. Find some that are easy to perform in your schedule. There is strong evidence that this can improve your ability to perform under pressure. C. BE SENSITIVE TO YOUR BODY The brain is an integral part of our body - and vice versa. Because of this, we think with our whole body (8). The brain will detect a range of stimuli that are registered non- consciously - and these manifest as physical sensations through the body. By developing increased sensitivity to these bodily sensations, we can improve our ability to perform effectively under pressure and stress. A key to this is to understand that the brain will experience a sense of “cognitive unease” in response to certain stimuli from the environment. And this is manifested in a range sensations - some of which are felt in the body. Cognitive ease is the mental state that suggests we can continue to think and act reflexively - ie in the habitual way we have done in the past. In a way, cognitive ease © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 5
  6. 6. gives us “permission” to operate in those tried and trusted ways that have generally brought us success in the past. Cognitive unease, on the other hand, suggests that we need to stop and think differently (reflectively) - and then act accordingly. In other words, cognitive unease is the switching process that allows us to recognise more accurately the real demand of the situation. When operating under stress, there is a general tendency to act reflexively - ie to respond automatically with established habits. Recognising cognitive unease is a way of improving the decisions and actions by recognising that a reflective style may be more appropriate. Several factors impact on our state of cognitive ease or unease: 1. Intuition: A non-conscious recognition of a pattern in current events that matches a past event in which you took successful action. This is “permission” to act reflexively. Intuition can be trusted under two conditions: • where the situation you encounter is subject to a systematic pattern of events - ie where events are generally NOT random and follow a well recognised pattern. We also call this expert intuition - eg: the behaviour of an experienced paramedic at the scene of an accident • where you have experience operating in these situations and have received positive feedback on your performance. 2. Bio-feedback: The physical sensation you experience that tells you something is wrong or extra-ordinary here. It may be experienced as a “gut feeling”, increased heart rate or faster, shallower breathing. In this instance, your brain (through bodily feedback) is telling you it has picked up some non-conscious stimulus that suggests you may need to avoid reflexive action - and think more carefully about the situation and what to do next (ie think and act reflectively).
 
 The challenge is to be sensitive to these bodily sensations and not simply dismiss © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 6
  7. 7. them as irrational sensations or fear. Practicing mindfulness increases our sensitivity to bio-feedback and allows us to regulate our thinking and behaviour when experiencing these physical sensations. 3. Critical brain capacities: We have a range of brain capacities that influence our ability to think and act effectively. These capacities can be categorised into four key processes: • emotions: the brain’s detection of non-conscious cues from the environment • feelings: the conscious experience of these emotions by way of bodily sensations • thinking: cognitive abilities such as memory, attention and planning • self regulation: the regulation of these emotions, feelings and thoughts for purposes of “appropriate” behaviour and adaptation. Our work has identified a number of specific brain capacities that enable more effective decision making and action in stressful and pressure situations: These key capacities can be trained and developed by way of a targeted brain training program (9). 4. Stress and mood: As outlined in the earlier part of this paper, stress impacts upon the brain and performance by affecting sense-making, decision making and actions. Because of this, these are several factors we should be aware of when we find ourselves in a pressurised or stressful situation. Our work has identified the following factors to be aware of: Emotions Emotional bias: An awareness of your non-conscious biases that impact your decision-making and actions Thinking Controlled attention: The capacity to stay focused on the situation, and to resist automatic thoughts that distract you Inhibition: The capacity to suppress inappropriate responses to a given situation Flexibility: The capacity to effectively switch attention between tasks Emotions Emotional bias: The awareness of your non-conscious biases that impact on your decision-making and actions Feelings Personal stress levels: The current level of stress you are under - ranging from constant worry or panic to the complete absence of worry Personal anxiety levels: The current level of anxiety you feel about your ability to cope in pressurised situations - ranging from feeling anxious to feeling calm Depressed mood levels: The extent to which you feel motivated and engaged with your work - ranging from feeling demotivated to feeling engaged and motivated. © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 7
  8. 8. As in the case of the brain capacities above, individuals often remain unaware of their levels of bias, personal stress and mood. In many cases, they put on a brave front and engage in some form of self-denial to convince others (and themselves) that they are coping well. However, the research evidence shows clearly that performance is compromised, and is likely to deteriorate alarmingly under additional pressure and stress. If people are aware of these factors, they can remain vigilant and seek second opinions or support when confronted with high pressure and stressful situations. Remember that these factors can be assessed and strategies put in place to improve levels of stress mastery. IMPROVING PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE Pressure in work or personal situations will often result in stress for the brain - a factor that compromises performance through an impact on sense-making, decision making and psychomotor skills. Three broad strategies are available for enhancing performance under these conditions: • Reframing the situation to induce a sense of calm to the brain - thereby permitting better access to the executive and rational functions of the PFC • Practicing mindfulness to allow you to more accurately assess the needs of the situation and respond accordingly • Developing greater sensitivity to cognitive unease to provide important indicators as to whether you can operate in the usual way or if the situation has to be re-thought. Recognising the effect of pressure, and taking purposeful steps to mitigate its impact, will make a significant contribution to improving your performance _______________________________________________________________________ Dr Norman Chorn is a strategist and organisation development practitioner with the BrainLink Group. He uses principles of neuroscience to address the challenges of developing strategy in a complex and uncertain environment. His particular areas of focus are strategy in conditions of uncertainty; organisational and cultural alignment; and strategic leadership. Dr Terri Hunter is a brain-based organisational psychologist with the BrainLink Group. She is an expert in team development and executive leadership coaching, which she approaches from a neuroscience perspective. Her areas of focus include team effectiveness, leadership development and brain training. Subscribe to our regular articles No spam guaranteed © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 8
  9. 9. References 1) Decision making under pressure general involves dealing with both hard and soft data. “Soft” data generally refers to information that is indistinct, difficult to measure and hard to verify accurately. Examples include people’s opinions or feelings, uncertainties and speculation.
 2) Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most, H Weisinger and J Pawliw-Fry, 2015, Crown Publishing, New York
 3) Judgement and decision making under stress: An overview for emergency managers; K Kowalski and C Vaught, 2014, University of Pittsburgh
 4) Your failure to differentiate stress from pressure could be your downfall, A Morin, 18/3/2015, Forbes
 5) An “Integrative Neuroscience” Platform: Application to Profiles of Negativity and Positivity Bias, E Gordon et al, 2008, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 7, no 3
 6) Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction, U Hulsheger, H Alberts, A Feinholdt, and J Lang, 2012, Journal of Applied Psychology
 7) What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research, D Davis and J Hayes, 20122, Psychotherapy
 8) The hour between dog and wolf, J Coates, 2013, Fourth Estate
 9) Our work includes the use of a program that assesses and develops specific brain capacities. © Norman Chorn 2016 • norman.chorn@brainlinkgroup.com • (612) 9999 5412 • Page 9

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