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Performance Hack: Decision Making Under Stress…

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

How would you rate the quality of the decisions you and your team make under stress?

Right from the start of military flying training, student pilots are taught how to make quality decisions under stress…the outcome of which may result in them either living or dying. When teaching students how to fly, we must ensure that before we send a student ‘solo’, his or her decision making is sound; ultimately, that they will return with the jet and themselves intact!

The flying training ‘system’ deliberately and repeatedly places students into stressful, time critical situations and observes how they react. A practical example which is taught very early in pilot training is the ‘Engine Failure After Takeoff’. This is about the most time critical problem you can have in any aeroplane…you are very close to the ground, and the thing that caused you to leave it has decided not to work anymore. To send the student ‘solo’, we must observe that the student consistently and accurately assesses the information available, then makes an appropriate decision to either eject, or commit to a ‘relight attempt’.

So how does the student do this, and what does this mean to you and your team?

Preparation: The student accepts that decisions will be made in stressful situations, and prepares for this. He or she knows that the decision is time critical, and rehearses where to find important information and what to prioritise.

In your workplace, your organisation’s values and purpose should help to direct your priorities. You can prepare for time critical and stressful situations by workshopping ‘what ifs’ in the planning stage. “What if the renovation isn’t finished on time?” “What if that pool of funding doesn’t come through?” “What if the weather precludes the open air event?”

Models: The student is taught a decision making model which provides an anchor point when surrounded by chaos. Airline crews also use decision making models. Almost like a checklist, these models provide us way to gain information about the situation, evaluate different options, come up with a plan and then execute it. They also provide a means of reviewing the plan and changing the course of action if required. Yes…AGILITY is also important critically important on a flight deck!

In your business, what models do you and your team use? Do you have a robust method to lead you through a complex scenario and come up with a viable plan? If not, give me a call and we can discuss training options!

Rehearsal: Students practice the 'Engine Failure After Takeoff' drill THOUSANDS of times. Yes...thousands. From 'chair flying' at night, to preparation for the dreaded morning quiz..."What are the Engine Failure After Takeoff actions.........<ungodly pause>..........Pilot Officer Richardson?", through to the pre-takeoff emergency brief which is done during taxi to the runway of EVERY flight.

These actions become so deeply ingrained that I can still recall my F/A-18 emergency brief, although I last flew that jet in 2002! For those aviation geeks amongst you, it goes like this: "Nose wheel lift off is 128 knots, main wheel liftoff is 140 knots. Computed abort speed is nose wheel liftoff. From brakes release to nose wheel liftoff I will abort if I have an engine fire, major thrust loss, double bleed light, mech on, del on, double generator failure or a blown tire. After nose wheel liftoff I will continue the takeoff. I will retract the gear and flaps except for the case of a blown tire. If I cannot maintain altitude or airspeed, I will eject."

Are there ways your team can rehearse common stressful scenarios? How can you ensure they will know what to prioritise and where to find information? Have you told them what decisions can be made independently, and what needs to be sent 'up the chain'?

Stress is a part of life in most modern workplaces, and quality decision making under stressful conditions is an important marker of a high performance team. How do you rate YOUR team’s performance under stress?

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