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Jenny Baker

Decision Making and Your Mental Hygiene

Rita I. Molnar

Global disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the ways of mitigating its impact and managing the system-level changes generated worldwide have been and still will attract the attention and resources of economies, policymakers, experts, researchers, and organizations for an unforeseeable time and leave an emotional imprint in the memories of billions of people. When stakes are the highest, the need for authentic leadership is heightened. Though the number of changes has grown exponentially worldwide due to the global economic development for the last decades, most leaders, independent of their background (politics, public service, or business), did not have a history of making decisions in such complex, uncertain situations like this pandemic (Hatami et al., 2020). Yet, they have been forced to take measures and respond to the crisis without similar experience or best practices.

Needless to say, taking control of an unprecedented situation is stressful. Detecting, differentiating, and prioritizing threats when information is scarce, less timely, or ambiguous, and communicating the vision, goals, and the path to be taken there clearly in the middle of a heap of unknowns can be demanding. Coordinating the tasks after difficult decisions and reconciling IQ and EQ, or quick wins and long-term solutions meanwhile struggling with human emotions and inner-directed focus like the fear of losing someone dear at the higher risk groups can be extremely stressful for leaders. Sharing insights on how to practice effective leadership, be present to the people, manage virtual teams, optimize leadership style, and demonstrate core values and integrity during this crisis inspired both academics and practitioners (Honigmann et al., 2020; Kniffin et al., 2020; Roberts, 2020; Trompenaars & La Via, 2020). Notwithstanding, leaders might need awareness also of how situationally induced stress influence their performance in decision making.

Perceiving real or imagined threat has an impact not only on the physical body but also on the way leaders behave, feel, or think. Triggering chemicals automatically like cortisol or adrenalin is the mean to get into either a fight, flight, or freeze response to ensure survival in the case of a real and immediate threat. However, several cognitive abilities and social skills are impaired when leaders suffer from sustained stress provoked by uncertainty. Prolonged stress feeding on anxiety and fear can also disrupt and disable functions like:












Research suggests that the altering impact of stress on cognitive and emotional skills is moderated and mediated by individual traits and situational factors (Cartwright & Whatmore, 2005; Cooper & Payne, 1991; Riskind et al., 2016). However, leaders can improve their coping mechanism with pressure to take back control of their health as well as prevent burnout and unwanted organizational consequences like stress contagion, absenteeism, presenteeism, talent turnover, and productivity losses, to mention a few. Avoiding a mental breakdown or dysfunctional stress responses and adopting effective coping techniques need consciousness, resilience, and a sense of responsibility for other team members (Kohlriese & Rossi, 2014).

Stress-induced crises sharpen sensory perception; therefore, acting as a role model, a leader needs to demonstrate helpful coping techniques beyond practicing self-control over the anxiety and fear consciously to prevent negative stress responses from cascading within the team. There are plenty of ways to recharge our physical, mental, or emotional batteries and avoid their full depletion. Engaging in revitalizing activities like practicing various muscle relaxation or breathing techniques, walking, doing something funny, diary writing, meditating, listening to music, taking a mini-nap, or venting to a trusted friend or a colleague can prevent burnout. Also, seeking professional help is always an option to prevent losing control over the sources of energy. As taking decisions in uncertain times instead of postponing them because of getting paralyzed is critical, the next section will focus on proposing evidence-based approaches to improve decision-making skills leading to better outcomes.

Approaches to Improve Decision-Making Skills

Leaders in the front line have got used to decisional stress. However, high-stakes decisions in turbulent times violating the basic psychological need of orientation and control can be overwhelming for even well-balanced leaders. Therefore, leaders wishing to get back the steering wheel need to focus on a more accurate appraisal of the situation or a decision.  This can moderate the disrupting effect of uncertainty on cognitive skills needed in effective decision making (O'Driscoll & Dewe, 2001). For example, the following activities embody a conscious information-seeking behavior to aim for better orientation:

  • Get powered by perspective taking. Pause, step back, and ask: Am I aware of the implication of the threat as much as it is possible? Am I aware of the capacity and resources I am, or we are, equipped with to deal the situation? To avoid cognitive bias, consult others whom you trust and respect to check their reality and expand your perspective with their interests, perceptions, needs, and experiences. Explore opposing dilemmas to consider in the situation and look for how to reconcile them (Trompenaars & La Via, 2020). Gaining a broader perspective on the situation can move feelings from uncertainty toward clarity and confidence, unclear thoughts to a focused cognitive process, and inertia to physical actions. Such a process allows the leader to combine and prioritize goals, values, and drives both at the individual and organizational levels with the demands and the supporting forces in that particular case. Considering further perspectives contributes to a more accurate evaluation and categorization of the situation. When making a decision, it needs to be assessed whether there is already damage that has to be compensated, there is a future threat to get prepared for and prevent, or there is an opportunity that needs to be harvested. 
  • Get powered by real insights. Gathering more data and transforming it to intelligence can enhance the understanding of the situation and also activate the cortex when getting engaged in analytical activities like reasoning or pattern seeking. Collect and use your own data instead of following buzzwords dominating the media or relying on reports blindly that might have little overlapping with your organizational culture and situational context. Be critical of the source of information. If you are less familiar with advanced statistical and fancy visual analysis tools or trendy data mining methods like correlation, cluster, sentiment, cohort, predictive or prescriptive analyses, and Power BI or Tableau, you can still use classical strategies: SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis) and scenario analysis or BCG matrix (The Boston Consulting group’s product portfolio matrix), or different ratios and indicators (Neto & Gray, n.d.). 
  • Get powered by proven cognitive coping strategies. Although individual differences in some personality factors influencing the appraisal process can be rather stable and hardwired (Cuevas, 2003), how to deal with the stressor is a learnable skill. Problem-focused coping strategies seem to be a better choice if the leader aims to mitigate the stress outcomes (Baker & Berenbaum, 2007). Get your cortex engaged in seeking information and support, and exploring more alternatives. Choose from three options at least to avoid bolstering—favoring one option to the other one without reviewing its unfavorable consequences. Also, listing the advantages and disadvantages of a certain solution, anticipating possible scenarios, and planning the implementation of the decision are proven and helpful ways of problem-focused, intentional efforts to cope with stress strains. Adopting problem-focused approaches does not mean leaving emotions out of the decision-making process. However, identifying and labeling the emotion that is fueled by the crisis and might impact the cognitive function of the decision making can help minimize the risk of the negative influence.

Clearly, like in the COVID-19 pandemic defense, there is no single, one-size-fits-all intervention to take back the control, break habitual stress responses harmful to cognitive abilities, and counteract the disrupting impact of fear caused by drifting to the unknown. Most interventions are insufficient if used on their own. Nevertheless, leadership does not happen in a vacuum but in a situational context with shared responsibilities of other agents in the organization. Maintaining mental and emotional hygiene in turbulent times is the primary responsibility of a leader expected to make high stakes decisions.


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Hatami, H., Sjatil, P. E., & Sneader, K. (May 28, 2020). The toughest leadership test. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/the-toughest-leadership-test

Honigmann, D., Mendy, A., & Spratt, J. (2020, June 26).  Communications get personal: How leaders can engage employees during a return to work. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/communications-get-personal-how-leaders-can-engage-employees-during-a-return-to-work

Kniffin, K. M., Narayanan, J., Anseel, F., Antonakis, J., Ashford, S. P., Bakker, A. B., Bamberger, P., Bapuji, H., Bhave, D. P., Choi, V. K., Creary, S., Demerouti, E., Flynn, F. J., Gelfand, M. J.,  Greer, L., Johns, G., Kesebir, S.,  Klein, P. G., Lee, S. Y., . . . Vugt, M. v. (2020). COVID-19 and the workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000716

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Neto, L. C. M., & Gray, A. W. (n.d.). Data-driven decision making in times of crisis: Data analysis. Purdue University Center for Food and Agricultural Business. https://agribusiness.purdue.edu/data-driven-decision-making-in-times-of-crisis-data-analysis/

O'Driscoll, M. P., & Dewe, P.J. (2001). Mediators and moderators of stressor-strain linkages. In P. L. Perrewe & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Exploring theoretical mechanisms and perspectives (Research in Occupational Stress and Well Being, Vol. 1, pp. 257-287). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Riskind, J. H., Sagliano, L., Trojano, L., & Conson, M. (2016).  Dysfunctional freezing responses to approaching stimuli in persons with a looming cognitive style for physical threats. Frontiers of Psychology, 7, 521-529. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00521

Roberts, R. (2020). COVID-19, leadership and lessons from physics. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 28(3), 232–235. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajr.12649

Trompenaars, F., & La Via, V. (2020). The Covid-19 survival guide: Dilemmas and solutions. Kindle Edition.


Rita Molnar is an organizational and business psychologist, specialized in the fields of talent and HR management, organizational diagnostics and development, and organizational culture change. She has been working as a management and HR/OD consultant since 2002 in various industrial environments (financial services, automotive, commerce, food, hotels, textiles, mechanical engineering, plastic, construction, wood, basic metal production, agriculture, professional services, education, pharmaceutical) in the Central and Eastern European region. 

Rita has consulted for owners and CEOs of large private organizations, SMEs, nonprofit, voluntary organizations, local governments, and individual professionals as well. Moreover, she has designed and managed extensive and multilevel talent diagnostics and development programs, supported clients in their talent management decisions based on predictive and prescriptive analytics, and helped organizations execute various change management projects aligned with organizational culture.

Rita is an experienced executive coach and delivers workshops and training on talent analytics and neuroscience-based leadership. In her spare time, Rita enjoys guest lecturing at several universities (University of Szeged; National University of Public Service; Karoli Gaspar University of Reformed Church; Budapest Business School; University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Targu Mures) in the CEE region and volunteering as a career ambassador for Amcham Hungary. In addition, she is a PhD researcher at Salomons Institute for Applied Psychology (Canterbury Christ Church University, UK).

Rita is on LinkedIn and Twitter as well, or you can contact her via her website.

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