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Decision-making under Pressure

When an important decision must be made in a high-pressure situation, it is natural to worry about making a "bad" or "wrong" decision. Most people prefer to have sufficient time to analyze a situation and consider the alternatives. In a high-pressure situation, however, time is often a luxury they cannot afford. In the workplace, people are often expected to make good decisions in a very short space of time.

Some of the best decisions, however, are made under pressure. Pressure can result in focused attention and the use of unconscious reasoning. It can force a decision-maker to sort the relevant factors from the irrelevant, and can result in clear thinking with unambiguous priorities. There are several practices which can serve decision-makers under pressure well.

What You Need to KnowWhen put under pressure, I tend to become overwhelmed by the risk of making the "wrong" decision. How can I overcome this?

Many people react to a pressure situation by running through all the potential disaster scenarios if a bad decision is made. This will cloud your thinking and adds yet more pressure to your decision-making. Try to overcome this response by focusing on the relevant information and putting the rest aside. Tell yourself you can mull it over later—but for now you must prioritize and focus on the key factors.

How can I avoid having to make hasty decisions under pressure?

Most people prefer to make decisions after a period of un-pressured analysis. If your job might require you to make decisions under pressure, take an offensive approach—look ahead and consider various potential eventualities, the decisions you might make, and their likely outcomes. By doing this, even if you do not encounter the exact situation, you will have already thought through a number of different scenarios and your thinking will be faster, clearer, and more readily accessible, whatever decision is required.

Should I rely on my gut instinct when making decisions under pressure?

There are times when instincts can serve you very well. This is especially true if you have a long track record of dealing with similar situations. It is always important to balance instinct by considering any extenuating circumstances, however. Be sure to remain open to any new information before impulsively following your instincts.

I am often asked to make fast decisions that meet the agendas of others. How can I think through their motivations and arrive at the right conclusions when under pressure?

If you do not see the urgency to make the decision, jockey for more time and explore the situation more fully. In these instances, open communication is very important—especially if the decision has an impact on others. You do not want to be in a position of accounting for a decision you made, and having to admit that you were pressured into it by someone else!

What to DoBuild Your Decision-making Competence

While some people are naturally better decision-makers than others, decision-making is a skill that can be learned and improved. There are many tools that help the decision-making process. They range from decision trees, to help identify the pros and cons of different solutions, to a force field analysis in which the pressures for and against change are highlighted and weighted. These techniques are most useful when tempered by experience or moderated by a feeling of what will work and what will not.

When under pressure to make a decision, however, the luxury of time to use these techniques does not typically exist. Instead, the situation may require being reactive and drawing upon intuition. Some people who appear to have good instincts for what needs to be done are probably drawing from extensive experience, with specific knowledge of what has worked in the past and what has not. People who lack this background will benefit from "virtually" going through potential decisions before they are required. In this way, responses to different situations can be rehearsed in a more leisurely fashion, making it easier to determine the best course of action should the situations ever arise.

The following sections describe this and other techniques that can help improve decision-making skills, especially when called upon to make decisions under pressure.

Anticipate and Rehearse Scenarios

To avoid serious errors in future, high-pressure decision scenarios, think ahead, anticipating and rehearsing various scenarios before they occur. This is a common technique for emergency services personnel when role-playing crises and other serious situations. Everything is enacted as if it is really happening, so that the parties involved gain experience making good decisions under pressure. Then, when a serious situation occurs in reality, everyone is better equipped to make decisions rapidly and effectively.

Think through a series of "disaster scenarios" involving your professional responsibilities, and make some conclusions about available courses of action should any of them actually happen. This does not need to be a negative activity—with a bit of luck, none of the situations will actually emerge. However, if they do, having already run through the thought processes, you will be much better equipped to make a decision.

Conduct a Risk Analysis

Another valuable activity that can improve decision-making is to undertake a risk analysis of potential threats or issues before the need for any reactive decision arises. This process not only yields the benefit of being better prepared to respond to the analyzed threats, it may also help to identify ways in which some threats can be reduced or eliminated.

Here is a useful checklist for conducting a risk analysis:

  • Speculate on the potential threats facing your situation. These may include financial, technical, operational, or human threats. Ask "What if…" until all possible scenarios are exhausted.
  • Measure the likelihood of each risk occurring. Think about the combination of the probability of its occurrence and the cost of its effect. By doing this, you can determine the worst-case scenario.
  • Beginning with the most critical risk or threat, consider the different ways it could be addressed. Going through this exercise before the risk occurs may enable you to eliminate the risk altogether, or devise a contingency plan that will mitigate the risk. Repeat this process for each of the most serious threats.
  • Make contact with others who play a key role in the elimination or contingency plan for a particular risk. Inform them of any action required of them to manage the situation effectively. If everyone is warned, informed of their role, and kept briefed about the probability of a serious threat occurring, they will be able to mobilize more swiftly when necessary.
Appraise the Situation

When something happens that requires urgent attention, avoid jumping to conclusions. Resist going down a path that reflects your biases or fears, rather than what is actually going on. Instead, take a deep breath and take time to appraise the situation—then decide which of the scenarios you have already considered most closely matches what has occurred. It is difficult to predict a situation precisely, so be prepared to "mix and match" prepared plans of action in order to meet the demands of the situation.

Discard Irrelevant Facts

It is easy to become overwhelmed by information in crisis situations. Typically, there are only one or two critical facts upon which the decision rests. Avoid getting distracted by factors that are irrelevant to the current decision—discard information that is clouding your judgement. Answering the question "Is this critical now?" will enable you to identify and reject elements of the situation that do not warrant urgent attention, thus advancing to the core of the problem more rapidly.

Weigh Options

It sometimes helps to apply weightings or scores to the available options, to better identify the most suitable decisions. In a high-pressure situation, this may have to be a mental exercise—though putting it in writing can be helpful. This activity can bring focus to a muddled or chaotic situation and help highlight the best decision.

Talk Through the Decision

To ensure that nothing has been overlooked, check your logic with a trusted or experienced colleague. The exercise of articulating your decision process to someone else often helps to further clarify your rationale and cement your decision.

Remember that a so-called "good" decision does not necessarily guarantee a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes, even when a careful decision-making process yields what we believe to be a good decision, things can turn sour. The activity of making a good decision does not protect from failure. All we can do is stack the odds in our favor as much as possible and hope for the best. Every situation, regardless of its outcome, presents a learning opportunity that will assist future decisions.

What to AvoidYou Allow Yourself to Feel Overwhelmed

Allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed by decision-making situations will result in clouded logic, comprising your decision-making ability. Regardless of time pressures, always listen attentively and collect the most critical information before moving into decision-making mode. This will help you remain clear-headed as you sift through the facts and determine what is really going on. Many mistakes are made by people who assume they already know what is happening and thus, do not perceive what is really going on around them. Do not fall into the trap of seeing and hearing only what you expect to see and hear!

You Don't Let Others Know What is Expected

Failing to brief other key players about their role in a crisis-response situation will slow things down and increase the pressure on everyone involved in the situation—including you, as the key decision-maker. When making rapid decisions under pressure, the last thing you need is confusion and a barrage of questions from others about what is expected of them. Inform others about potential scenarios and their particular responsibilities, prior to the need for action or as soon as is feasible.

You Become Bogged Down in Detail

Any good decision-making process can get bogged down in details. When making a decision under pressure, it is critical to eliminate as much irrelevant detail as possible. If a detail is not immediately relevant to the situation, it should be set aside so that you can get to the core of the issue and focus on what needs to be done.

You Don't Ask for Help

When under pressure to make a good decision, avoid allowing your pride to get in the way of asking for help. A more experienced colleague may be able to lend a valuable perspective. Ask him or her to talk you through the rationale for their recommendations. This will help you to "learn the ropes," gaining valuable experience that you will be able to tap in future decision-making scenarios.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Heller, Robert. Essential Managers: Making Decisions. Dorling Kindersley, 1999.

Russo, J. Edward, and Paul J. H. Schoemaker. Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time. Currency, 2001.

Welch, David A. Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making. Prometheus Books, 2001.

Williams, Steve W. Making Better Business Decisions. Sage Publications, 2001.

Web Sites:, "How to make better decisions":, "Making good decisions under pressure":

Free online tools to help decision making under pressure:

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