Making a decision is not easy for most of us, particularly if the stakes are high.

Important decisions can have life altering impact and ideally one would like to take some time to carefully consider the pros and cons and evaluate alternatives before making a choice.

This model however does not work when we are under pressure to make snap decisions.

When under stress to make rapid decisions that could be critical, the going gets far tougher. Consider for example an emergency situation where the first few minutes or hours are crucial.

Decisions made in the immediate aftermath of a disaster play a crucial role in damage control, prevent the situation from deteriorating further and help in the successful resolution of the problem. Under such conditions, life and death decisions have to be made under extreme stress, and decision makers tend to respond differently.

In situations where the decision maker has very little time to plan his course of action and people often resort to what is known as ‘reactive decision making'. While there is indeed a science to this phenomenon— an instinct that has evolved over the millennia, priming us to intuitively deal with danger and life threatening situations— there is a significant possibility that untrained people could end up making the wrong choice.

Following some of these rule of thumb tips will help minimise mistakes and make coherent choices even under pressure.

Priorities matter:In one experiment, 40 firefighters took part in a forest firefighting simulation game. While half the participants were subject to stress in the form of a disturbing noise, the other half were allowed to work undisturbed. Researchers found that the performance of both groups was comparable, but the methods they adopted to solve the problem were different.

Participants under stress focused on the principal outlines of the problem, while those that were not stressed used in-depth evaluations for dealing with issues. The stressed participants, it was found, were able to prioritise better than their unstressed counterparts.

The results go to show that prioritisation plays a very important role in making decisions under pressure. Depending upon the situation, you may either have an information overload or as is more likely, not enough information to make a decision.

Since processing and analysis of detailed information requires time, one has to simplify the problem to its most critical issues and deal with them first.

Dynamic situations:In constantly evolving situations, where one cannot predict what will happen next, good decision makers tend to choose the option that gives them the most flexibility even though it may not necessarily be ‘the best' alternative to deal with a situation. Always operate with the worst-case scenario in mind is the dictum.

Communication angle:How you communicate with your team and others around you under pressure can have a profound impact on how they react and whether they believe and cooperate with you. It is important for leaders to maintain a calm and confident bearing even though they may be feeling anxious inside. Teams that have greater confidence in their leaders tend to obey orders without questioning and exhibit greater levels of collaboration and teamwork.

In many cases, particularly in emergency situations, personnel on the field exhibit much better understanding of the situation than decision making authorities who may be removed from the action. It is important to take on-field personnel into confidence when making critical decisions as they can be a storehouse of important information and advice. Direct open communication between the two facilitates better flow of information and hence better decisions.

Training, simulation and experience are important tools that prepare people to make split second decisions under stress. While it may not be possible to plan for every contingency in business or life, studies have shown that people who have been conditioned to make decisions under stress through training are able to make decisions much faster and better than those that have not done so even if it were a new situation they have not encountered or trained specifically for.

Gut instinct:It has been found that experienced decision makers exhibit better gut instinct when it comes to making right choices under pressure. Over time, they develop what is called ‘recognition primed decision making' skills- subconscious strategies that help them instantly identify familiar patterns in situations and intuitively take the right decisions even though they may not have had the time to analyse or evaluate their decisions properly.

Whilst we have been conditioned since childhood to think before we take action, there may be many situations in business and in life where we need to make spontaneous decisions. By following these simple tips every time there is a need to make a quick decision, you can minimise stress, rationalise your priorities and make decisions under pressure with much greater confidence.

Bindu Sridhar