Decision Making Under Pressure

Posted 04.16.2008

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In a recent post on Harvard Business Online, my colleague, John Baldoni, shared three key questions that leaders under pressure need to ask themselves before speaking or swinging into action:

• What is happening?
• What is not happening?
• What can I do to influence the outcome?

As John points out, these are great questions to ask to provide oneself an opportunity to step back, get above the situation and determine the appropriate action.

Pic309_3 Paradoxically, research shows that sometimes the best thing to do under pressure is nothing. In a recent addition to his Department of Human Behavior column for the Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam cites research that suggests we have an “action bias” that causes us to make poor decisions under pressure. Vedantam talks about the work of economist Ofer Azar who “examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center — partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.  Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.”

So, the good news is that most of us don’t have to make the split second decisions that soccer goalies do. Still, it seems likely that we can learn something from their success rates. Asking questions such as the one John Baldoni relates above can help us to step back and assess what action we need to take under pressure or whether we need to take any action at all.