When speaking about the impact of stress on the leadership population at last week’s Trusted Coach Directory event, there were quite a few surprised faces when I shared something quite counterintuitive about stress and decision making.

You would think that under stress we would get more cautious wouldn’t you? Wrong. 

We certainly become more cautious of others and any paranoia we might be susceptible to will kick in but decisions are different. Decisions need our executive function, not our emotional brain. It turns out that under stress we’re susceptible to being ‘delusionally optimistic’. Delusional optimism is a first cousin to what Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemancalls “planning fallacy,” This is when someone making plans chronically underestimates costs and overestimate benefits regardless of the individual’s knowledge that past tasks of a similar nature have taken longer to complete than planned. It’s as if we don’t want to look at the negatives or remember failings in our past. How else do we learn though?

Something similar is going on with decision-making under stress. An equation from Timothy Gallwey can help us understand this. 

Performance = Potential – Interference. 

I love this equation and always keep it in the background when coaching. Often, all we have to do as a coach is to help the client remove the interference. In this instance, the Potential we’re concerned with is the processing capability of our decision-making brain, the medial prefrontal cortex. The interference comes from the fear centre of the brain, the amygdalae, and the cortisol that is produced under conditions of distress.

David Rock’s metaphor of a stage is also useful here. He talks about this area of the brain beinglike a stage and that stage can only have a limited number of players present. As we get stressed and levels of cortisol increases, the stage can hold fewer and fewer players. The players that would look at the downsides and risks just aren’t present anymore. We don’t have the processing power left to see the risks and downsides.

This is one of the reasons that the executive coaching space can be so crucial. Psychologists talk about us creating a ‘safe container’, a place of safety and trust. In this space, Rock’s stage can hold the most players, and the logical brain is at it’s most effective. Coach and coachee together can identify and remove the interference, enabling the most potential.  

This is one reason that executives value coaching relationships. It gives them the space to think freely and process their thoughts with a trusted partner. A counterintuitive by-product is that we also protect ourselves against delusional optimism and potentially massive errors.