Stressed executives often need to make big decisions. What should concern us isn’t what you think


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.

So you want a promotion?

success board

When people seek coaching they (or their organisation) are very often concerned with getting on. How do they take the next step for promotion?

Well, to answer that question it would be good to know how managers actually go about making those decisions. In answering that I’d really like to thank whomever it was at IBM who, years ago, decided they wanted to know the same thing.

They wanted to know how managers make promotion decisions. Specifically how people come to their attention. Those are the questions that IBM had in mind when they carried out research into what differentiated people such that they get noticed. Being noticed meant being promoted, seconded to another unit, or a valuable sideways move. The results were enlightening. There were three key criteria that made a difference.

The first is Technical Competency to perform the ‘task’, i.e. how good are you at performing the technical aspects of your role?

The second is Behavioural Style, particularly communication – How do you come over as you perform your role. How clear and articulate are you? How well do you establish rapport and influence?

The third is Visibility and Reputation – Do the people who can influence your career progress know who you are and what you’ve been achieving? What do they think of you and how do they talk about you?

Firstly, take a guess at what the percentage split is in terms of importance across these three? 

  • Technical Competency 10%
  • Behavioural Style 30%
  • Visibility and Reputation 60%

With Visibility and Reputation being so high it’s no surprise that many engagements have this as a focus area. In order to consider you for promotion, people have to know, or at least remember, that you’re there. Ideally, you also want them to be up to date with your experience. If the last time you worked with them was three years ago, it’s of three years ago that they remember, not of now with your increased capabilities.

Once they know you’re there, then reputation is critical. People only promote people they can trust. It’s their own reputation and success they’re risking after all.

Here’s one exercise on that you may find useful.

Where does your reputation exist and where is it created? It exists in the minds of your stakeholders and it is created or adapted in one of two ways; the first is their direct experience of you; the second is in the conversations they have with others about you.

I find it useful to imagine a ‘water-cooler’ conversation where two senior stakeholders are talking and one wants to get an opinion from the other in regard to filling a position or completing a succession plan. They you “What do you think of Harry?”

When people talk about other people, they tend to use sentences with a ‘but’ in the middle when giving the headline. ‘But’ is an interesting word in that it negates the words that come before it. For example, “I don’t want to offend you but….” We know what’s coming next and “I don’t want to offend you” isn’t what’s important!

It’s the same with reputations, people tend to use ‘but’ in their descriptions and people remember the thing that comes after the ‘but’.

“He says all the right things and is quite polished but I’m not sure he can really be relied on to deliver.” – This leaves us with a negative impression.

“She might not seem overly confident in meetings but she always delivers and is a good strategic thinker” This leaves us with a positive impression:

I’ve found it useful to ask clients what they think their reputation is and to put this into this ‘water-cooler’ language structure. The negative that comes after the ‘but’ tells us what needs to be worked on for progress to be made. We are assuming here that the current reputation is not ideal.

Most people have a reasonable idea of what others think of them and can articulate this sort of statement. What are two senior stakeholders likely to say about you with a ‘but’ in the middle?

“[Your name] is __________________________ but__________________________”

You have also articulated what you think your public reputation to be and are likely to have identified a key thing for you to change in order to make progress. You can also check how accurate this is with people that you trust.

If you really struggle to articulate what it is that others think of you then that is useful data to have. You’re now aware of something key that you don’t know and can now do something about it. That could be a formal 360° feedback process or it could just be a matter of asking people what your reputation is in the organisation.

Once you are aware of what your reputation is, then it’s time to decide what it is that you want your reputation to be. This is a matter of changing the ‘but’ to ‘and’ with a more positive and desirable ending to the sentence:

“[Your name] is __________________________ AND __________________________”

So a short example of this might be:

FROM: “Alison can really deliver but she struggles to do this without putting a lot of noses out of joint”

TO: “Alison can really deliver and she now brings all of her stakeholders with her.”

What we’re after here is a change in perception within your stakeholder community and of course, this should reflect reality. Either your current reputation doesn’t reflect reality because stakeholders haven’t had visibility of your capabilities, or your reputation is valid and there is work to be done beyond increasing your visibility. For most people, there is a mix of both – developing capabilities to support the desired reputation and bringing stakeholders and network up to speed with your existing capabilities and successes.

You should now have an idea of your current and desired reputation, or a plan to capture feedback so that you can determine your current reputation and what changes need to be made for you to make further career progression. Once this is captured it’s time to focus on ensuring the right level of Visibility…..

My mission as a coach is to help leaders and leadership teams be the best they can be, so they, in turn, make the biggest positive difference for themselves, for their people and for society. 

Does stuff from work contaminate your family time? Here’s one solution

Many a time I’ve had clients talk to me about how upset they become that they allow their work to impact badly their family. They’re stressed at work or just have a lot on their mind at the time. They might think they’re fine but before they know it they’ve snapped at the kids or been short with their partner. In no way did they ever intend to hurt the people so precious to them but… they did so nonetheless.

I have a simple question.

“What’s your ‘going home habit’?”


When I ask this question I most often get a confused look. People don’t often think of themselves as actually having a going home ‘habit’. 

That’s why it’s a habit. It’s not in the conscious mind. It has sunk down into the lower brain where it takes next to no processing power and uses next to no resources. That’s why we have habits. To save precious resources and free up our thinking space. 

The brain may only be 10% of our body mass but it’s responsible for up to 30% calorie intake and 60% glucose intake. Start thinking about something new and your energy consumption increases30%! Do you remember your first driving lesson? I do and I was exhausted by having to process every single little thing. Now I can drive hundreds of miles along a familiar route and hardly think about it….using very little energy.

So we develop lots of habits and one of these is a going home (or stopping work) habit. A lot of the time this involves working, or at least thinking about work, right up to the moment that we walk in the door. There’s no gap. There’s no space to reset, both intellectually and emotionally, before starting to interact with arguably the most precious things in our lives. Don’t they deserve a ‘better you’ than the Mr or Mrs Grumpy they often/sometimes meet when you get home?

The easiest way to change a habit is to attach the new habit to an existing one. Hence my question. For example, one client drove home nearly every day. He would draw into the driveway, jump straight out of the car and walk into the house. If it was a heavy day, it wasn’t long before he was snapping at his kids or wife. 

So we made a little change to this habit, building the new one on to turning the engine off. As he heard the silence, he would stop and breathe, and ask himself what sort of evening he wanted to have with his family. Once reset like this, he could get out of the car and start a positive evening with his family.

If you work from home, like me, then maybe it’s not a going home habit but an ending the workday habit that’s needed. The same messages apply.

So what’s your going home habit?

Leaders. What should you be focussing on in your own development?


You may have heard about the Johari window before. It seems to be most often used to frame feedback discussions. I certainly learned it as a tool to frame 360° feedback reports and left it there. It was only later I realised how incredible this tool is for examining how a leader leads and where to focus improvement.

I first thought Johari sounded like a spiritual concept from ancient Eastern philosophy. I was somewhat disappointed when I found out that Johari is merely a mixture of the names of its creators, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham!

The model divides communication and interaction into four areas. These are:

* Arena (Known to me and to others)

* Façade (Known only to me)

* Blind Spot (Known only to others)

* Unknown (Known neither to me nor to others)

leaders focus

It’s estimated that over 80% of leadership success is derived from emotional intelligence as opposed to IQ and the key ingredient for developing emotional intelligence is self-awareness so we want the smallest Blind Spot possible. It’s no surprise then that the most successful leaders have the largest Arenas – Known to Self and Known to Others.

One way they achieve this aside from self-exploration is by regularly asking others for genuine feedback. In this way, they are continually looking for and reducing any blind spots. They don’t wait for a 360° feedback survey.

Of course, 360° feedback surveys are incredibly useful. If you haven’t had one for a few years it’s a good idea to ask why. Psychometrics also hugely helpful here. They’re great development tools, shining a light in the Blindspot. They’re not just for selection purposes though often their use is restricted to just that.

Transparency I believe, is a hugely important part of leadership. Transparency builds trust. People need to know what their leader is thinking to gain clarity and feel safe. This is another reason I encourage my coachees to expand their Arenas and reduce their ‘Hidden’ pane. This is especially true for those with a preference for Introversion. I’m not saying that we can’t have private lives but people want to know what a leader stands for and what you’re thinking. Especially what’s relevant in their context.

Sharing stories is a great wayexpand the Arena and shrink the Façade. I experienced onwho was renowned for his story-telling. So much so that some people would joke about him always having to share at least one story whenever he spoke. I’ll tell you one thing about him though. Everyone knew what he stood for and why would follow him.

The consequences of a Façade that remains large are confusion and a lack of trust in those around a leader, peers just as much as reports.

So instead of expanding your horizons, expand your Arenas.