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How to make high stakes decisions at work

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·6-min read
Pensive young female worker sit at office desk look at laptop screen thinking making decision, thoughtful woman employee pondering over problem solution, stare at computer monitor wait inspiration
We all have our own level of tolerance for risk and uncertainty, so some people will naturally feel more comfortable under pressure than others. Photo: Getty

We make decisions every day without even noticing. We decide whether or not to cross a road at a certain point, if we want another morning coffee or whether to have a salad or leftovers for lunch. These choices aren’t usually difficult, but a decision which could make or break your career is a challenge that requires thought and deliberation.

Quitting a job, firing someone or deciding whether to move to a new city are all big decisions. Although we might face tough choices throughout our lives, they’re rarely a simple matter. Carefully going through your options and best- or worst-case scenarios is a long, stressful experience and after that, it’s difficult to know if the decision we’ve made is the right one.

We all have our own level of tolerance for risk and uncertainty, so some people will naturally feel more comfortable under pressure than others. But is it ever possible for high-stakes decision-making to be an easier process — and if so, how?

“Because most of our daily decision making is done on autopilot and relatively benign, we lack the opportunity to practice at the higher stakes end of things, so we don’t get to develop a level of trust in ourselves and our ability to make appropriate choices under pressure or develop a system to work through,” says Penelope Jones, career coach and founder My So-Called Career.

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“We are essentially least prepared for the decisions which have the greatest risk attached, and so when the situation arises we feel exposed and vulnerable which layers on additional pressure,” she adds. “This is one reason why people who make high stakes decisions as part of their day to day — emergency services, airline pilots, traders, negotiators, surgeons etc go through such rigorous training.”

Not all big decisions are difficult. For example, if you hate your job and you’ve been offered a financially-secure position elsewhere, the decision to take that job is likely to be a no brainer. Things get complicated when the choices involve a higher element of risk.

“When the stakes are raised, particularly if the choice we are making is highly visible or feels very personal — when people’s jobs are on the line for example, we can find it hard to separate ourselves from the decision,” Jones says.

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“On some level, the decision becomes enmeshed with who we want to be, or how we want to be perceived, as well as solving the problem at hand and this can get in the way of rational thinking.”

There’s also a lot of personal risk associated with big decisions too. “This decision could be the one thing that you are remembered for, the consequences of which — both positive and negative — will follow you around for the rest of your professional life,” says Jane Ferré, executive career coach and mentor.

“People have a different attitude to risk, some leaders are a bit more gung-ho in their approach and make decisions based purely on gut instinct,” she adds. “Others are more risk-averse and will consider every possible aspect before making a decision.”

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The stress of making a decision can also impair our judgement and cognitive function, making it that much harder to know what to do.

So how can you make decision-making a little easier?

Use your experience

Even if you haven’t been in the exact situation before, you have experience of working with similar stressors that you can draw on. However, you should think carefully about whether looking back will be relevant to the decision at hand.

“The more adaptable you are in your mindset or approach, the better equipped you’ll be to navigate high pressure situations, where a rigid adherence to an opinion or preference can be hazardous,” Jones advises.

Get support

“The best results will generally come from a core group of people who understand the situation and can consider a number of options and work together to identify the best outcome rather than you sweating it out in isolation,” Jones says.

“Seek input from people who will help you to assess the situation from different perspectives and who will challenge your assumptions or bias but avoid filling a room with people who already have a fixed view of what they believe the ‘right’ answer to be as that risks becoming a contest.”

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However, be wary of falling into groupthink-like behaviour. Groupthink psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group, so much so that it overrides their desire to present their real opinion or engage in critical thinking. Putting aside personal beliefs in favour of group harmony can lead to dysfunctional decision-making.

Once you’ve spoken to other people, you need a strong decision-maker to make the final choice and be accountable. “Ultimately the decision-maker is the person who needs to make the decision and stand by it,” Ferre says.

Apply different parameters to the situation

This will help you broaden your thinking. “Time is a good one, as we have a tendency to focus too much on the short term consequences of decisions at the expense of the longer term, so think about how different responses might look over a longer timeframe,” Jones says.

Don’t rush

Take time to step back, seek advice, gain perspective. Even if you’re under time pressure, there is usually more leeway than you think. Make sure you have all the information you need to make a rational, not emotional, decision.

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“Everything is data. You can only make a decision based on the information that you have available, but you will never have all of the information required and you will have to fill in the blanks,” Ferre says.

And remember, making a bad decision is sometimes better than making no decision at all. “Making no decision will keep you or the business where you are. Making a decision, even if it is a bad one will propel you forward in some way. The action creates a reaction,” Ferre says. “It may take you in a different direction but this may work out better in the end. If you are wrong, be prepared to admit it and act quickly to readjust.”

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