Stress and Decision-Making

The average duty day holds of a large number of critical decisions – all that must be made in a limited amount of time and all that have some sort of stress involved.  While no one makes the perfect or the best decision all the time, there are things that we can do to improve our performance.  The first step to dealing with stress in our decision-making is to acknowledge its presence and then develop plans or systems to deal with it. At its most basic, stress occurs when the demands we perceive exceeds our perceived capacity to meet them.   In examining stress there are two basic categories; self imposed and situational.

Self Imposed Stress

Self imposed stress is the stress which we carry into the situation with us.  It is the stress that we have the opportunity to deal with proactively to minimize its impact on our performance.  Identifying self imposed stress involves scanning our emotional environment and  accurately assessing areas that effect our belief in our abilities to meet the demands of the job.  These can be both physical and mental and offer opportunities for us to better prepare and perform.

On the mental side of things we can build confidence by building knowledge and experience.  For instance, you can remove much of the stress of making complex legal decisions by increasing your understanding of the law.  The number of policies and procedures that Departments enact has steadily risen.  No one wants to fall afoul of the procedure police, so make it your business to know the rules governing situations you encounter most often.  Have a plan or system in place so that you can readily locate information regarding uncommon situations and then arrive at a solution or a proposed course of action yourself.  If you are unsure, seek the guidance of a boss –  but only after you have developed your own proposed course of action.  The process of developing your own resolution makes you stronger.  Like weight training you want to incrementally  increase the number of ‘reps’ your brain can handle.  The boss should only  be used to spot you.

Know when to say no.  Know when you are reaching the limit of your ability to make commitments in your personal and professional life and understand that taking on too much limits your ability to perform.  Developing time management skills and planning for meeting your commitments will impose realistic expectations and limit stress.  Don’t paint yourself into a corner.  Make sure that those who ask things of you have a realistic picture of what they can expect from you. If you find that you have bitten off more than you can chew make sure that you have provided yourself with a graceful exit that doesn’t disappoint others or violate your honor.  The ability to prioritize in your life is key.

Your ability to perform mentally and emotionally  is underwritten by your physical capacity.  Our physical beings are machines requiring regular maintenance and development.  Allowing our fitness to slip impairs our ability to perform in all other areas of our life and the body chemistry created through regular physical activity improves our ability to deal with stress.  Physical fitness also improves our confidence.  We are much more comfortable engaging in a foot chase or other physical confrontation if we believe in our ability.  Fitness also contributes to command presence which improves performance, enhances our self image and lessens the probability that others will challenge us.

Situational Stress

Situational stress is created through the random circumstances that challenge us.  It can be anticipated to the point that we know that it is certain but is made more complex by the unique details of every situation.  The best way to deal with these types of stress is to develop a system for navigating your way through situation ‘types’ such as hostage situations or robberies in progress.  Mental rehearsals and useful heuristics (plan frameworks) improve your capacity to deal with the unique.  In all cases it is best to remember the answer to the old question of, “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer of one bite at at time reminds us to break things down into manageable chunks.

What To Do:

At the line level we have a responsibility to develop ourselves and our capacity to deal with stress.  We need to have a plan for regular and honest self assessment that leads to planning for improvement and taking necessary action.  We need to stretch ourselves while realistically evaluating our capacity and prioritizing those things most important to us.  Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits for Highly Successful People‘ is a great resource to consider.  We also have to feed the machine.  All the mental and emotional preparation in the world means nothing if you lack the physical capacity and confidence to perform.

As a supervisor at any level we have to understand that stress occurs when perceived capacity exceeds perceived demand.  We need to monitor the demands we put on our people and ensure we don’t exceed their capacity. Through training and requiring people to develop proposed solutions to situations we can increase their capacity to deal with the demands of the job, as well as prepare them to sit in our chairs one day.  Bad things happen when leaders fail to consider the stress they put on their people.

As always, THANK YOU for your service and BE SAFE!

Please comment on what innovative ways you have found to deal with the stress of the profession.



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