How To Master the Art and Science of High-Stakes Decision Making

Our days are full of decisions.

From whether or not to hit the snooze button to the clothes we pull from our closet or the final scan of our email inbox before hitting the sack at night, it’s estimated that the average person makes as many as 35,000 decisions every single day.1

For high performing people—executives at the helm of powerful corporations, athletes under glaring stadium lights—decisions can range from the mundane to the highest of stakes.

High performers find themselves in environments where a single choice can reroute their career trajectory, tip the balance of a crucial game, or steer the future of a multimillion-dollar company.

In these cases, the art and science of high-stakes decision making becomes not just a skill, but a critical asset.


How Do We Make High-Stakes Decisions?

Ideally, our high-stakes decisions would be purely rational. We’d objectively weigh the pros and cons, take trustworthy feedback into account, and arrive at the best outcome, feeling confident in our process.

But, at the end of the day, we’re human. And human decision making is rarely so straightforward. Our real-life decisions are usually heavily influenced by our emotions, biases, and current stress levels.

Since high performers are often under significant stress, their decision making processes can easily be impacted—and not always for the better.

So what does this mean for high performers when it comes to high-stakes decision making? How can we ensure we’re making the best possible choices, regardless of these complicating factors?


The Science Behind Decision Making

Understanding the science behind decision making can offer insight into how we make choices, especially in high-pressure situations. Being aware of our own internal processes can help us navigate them and ensure the best possible outcomes.

It’s important to understand that, when we’re faced with a decision, our brains evaluate the potential options, weigh the benefits and drawbacks, consider past experiences, and anticipate possible outcomes.

But our cognitive biases, emotional states, and even physical fatigue can weasel their way into this process and influence the choices we make.

How do these factors weigh in?

Cognitive bias refers to the “mental filter” of sorts that we apply to everything we learn. Think about it—we don’t start from scratch with each new piece of information. Our brain takes certain shortcuts, applying past experiences or beliefs to help us process whatever new information we’re taking in.

Bias is tricky because we don’t always know we’re operating underneath it. And if we are, we’re susceptible to making decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information.

You may be familiar with the term “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to believe or favor information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This type of cognitive bias may mean an executive, for example, ignores contradictory evidence when making a strategic decision.

Emotions also play a primary role in decision making. An emotional state, whether positive or negative, can sway our choices, often pushing us away from objective reasoning. High performers face a lot of stress, and they can experience heightened emotional states that influence their decisions.

For example, anxiety about a potential failure may lead to overly cautious decision making, while excitement about a prospective win might result in unwise or risky choices.

Finally, physical fatigue, a common occurrence for both busy executives and athletes, can hamper decision making abilities. Exhaustion can mean lesser-quality decision making processes, since tired people are more likely to choose more immediate (and often less optimal) solutions.

Understanding these influences is crucial to improving the high-stakes decision making process. Once we acknowledge these factors, we can use strategies to lessen the role they play on a day-to-day basis.


Strategies for Effective High-Stakes Decision Making

High performers can use a number of evidence-based strategies to improve their processes, especially around high-stakes decision making.

Stress Management
One of the first steps in improving decision making under pressure is learning to manage stress effectively. Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and controlled breathing exercises can help facilitate clearer thinking by regulating the body’s physiological response to stress.

Emotional Regulation
Recognizing and managing emotional states is key to unbiased decision making. Emotional granularity, which focuses on recognizing, understanding, and then managing our own emotions, can be particularly useful for high performers.

Cognitive Debiasing Techniques
To counter cognitive biases, high performers can employ various debiasing techniques. These can include considering alternative perspectives, seeking input from others to challenge pre-existing beliefs, and taking a step back to reflect on decisions before finalizing them. While not always easy, debiasing can have significant positive impact on decision making ability.2

Adequate Rest and Recovery
Ensuring adequate rest is crucial to maintaining cognitive function and decision making abilities. For high performers, prioritizing recovery and sleep can help mitigate the effects of physical fatigue on decision making.

Professional Coaching
The fields of executive coaching and clinical psychology can both provide tailored interventions to enhance decision making skills. Professionals like the experienced clinicians at Amplify Wellness + Performance can help high performers understand their decision making patterns, develop strategies to handle pressure, and offer techniques to manage emotions and cognitive biases.

Making effective decisions under pressure is not only an essential skill for success but also a way to foster resilience and confidence. By implementing these strategies, high performers can confidently engage in a high-stakes decision making process that lends itself to positive outcomes.


High Performers Can Make Better High-Stakes Decisions

High-stakes decisions are an integral part of the lives of high performers. The pressure-cooker environment they navigate can make these decisions feel a little scary, with the potential for far-reaching—and even career-defining—consequences.

But with understanding and appropriate strategies, we can navigate through the complexity of decision making and turn it into a cornerstone of our professional success.



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