‘Life & Death’ decisions in the boardroom

A couple of major international organisations were recently implicated in a plot to cause racial & economic instability in South Africa by engaging in irregularities and promoting falsehoods. The issue is even discussed in the UK’s House of Lords with investigations being launched into other prominent international firms. One of the firms implicated, a prominent UK-based PR firm, has already entered into administration as a result of the backlash. This resulted in many employees losing their jobs. The other organisations that are implicated are all trying to make ‘life & death’ decisions that would enable them to stay in business.

            Although I do not condone what these organisations did, as a change practitioner I feel that we need to work hard in the present to make sure that better decisions are made from here on forward. The decisions that top management make under normal circumstances impact on the workforce whether you work in a massive organisation or in a small firm. Now imagine the impact when the organisation that you work for is under international pressure.

            From the articles available on the internet it is obvious that the calls for these firms to transform and change (however it is worded in the press) are increasing. There are also calls for these firms to be closed down completely but I do not think that this should even be considered (if you disagree then just sit and imagine how you would feel if your employer closed it’s doors tomorrow). The executive boards are under tremendous pressure to make decisions – decisions that may not be popular, but decisions that would restore public confidence. No confidence means no clients, means no organisation, means no jobs, and means increased unemployment! As the boards are making these life & death decisions I wonder at the following question: How do we make sure that these decisions are the right decisions for a particular moment in time while also looking out for the employees? I think that we can 1) create spaces in which to work with this difficult content and 2) become better at making decisions while under pressure.

Creating Spaces

            I think that difficult change & transformation work is not avoidable. I also think that we could do the difficult stuff better. As an extreme example, I use redundancies that I witnessed. The process was brutal and traumatised colleagues for months after they received their termination letters (often from a secretary that had no answers to their questions). Then there are the examples of organisations who go out of their way to ensure that the redundancy process is as non-traumatic as possible. It can therefore be done, but how? By convening people through dialogue to participate in the co-creation of ‘spaces’ in which to do this work!

            The best way that I can describe these spaces that I help create and hold is to draw on an experience in remote West Africa. The spaces that I create and hold remind me of a storm shelter that we used in Liberia. It was a massive reinforced sea container (painted red) that had openings but no closable doors and windows (yes, these were safety features!). When a thunderstorm struck we ran and got into the shelter to try and shield us form the worst of the storm: from lightening, and from massive falling trees – the reason why we did not go and hide in the cars is because the trees would flatten them! We still got wet though, still had a chance of being injured, and still had some sense of discomfort, yet we were able to pause and become still while looking at the storm from within. We were able to prepare ourselves for the next step. The shelter stopped the storm from battering us yet did not keep all elements of the storm out.

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Space as a Storm Shelter (Stander, 2017)

            In an organisation these spaces are aimed at dampening the sting of pressure or stress long enough so that we can work with it. There are various different practical approaches and theoretical lenses that can be used to create the right space for a particular organisation. One of the key components in achieving this is to engage in conversation (or dialogue). Dialogue, is defined by Isaacs (1999), as:

  1. “a conversation with a center, not sides” (p. 18)
  2. Creating something new by working through our differences
  3. “The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act” (p. 18)
  4. “[It’s] a conversation in which people think together in relationship” (p. 19)

            By engaging in dialogue we are able to examine the issues at hand in a way that puts them in a new perspective. Through dialogue we change our focus from the problem to the people dealing with the problem. Yes! Having a dialogue has the power to transform what goes on in organisations. “The key to creating or transforming community […] is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others” (Block, 2008, p. 9). Block (2008, p. 26) continues to say that sustainable change and transformation is dependant of small steps taken at a slow speed.

            These dialogic spaces allows us to slow down enough to encourage dialogue and therefore bring the initial steps of transformation and change into play. Slowing down may feel like the wrong thing to do when making life & death decisions yet the reality is that the best decisions are made by stepping back a bit (read here about stepping back). And this brings me to the actual decision-making.

Making decisions under pressure

            Both people whom actually make life and death decisions (i.e. medical and emergency services personnel), and people who feel that they are making life & death decisions in a boardroom can become better at it. In fact, we can all become better at making decisions under pressure. I want to reframe the ‘life & death’ decisions as decisions with huge impact. Therefore, how do we become better at making decisions with huge impact while under pressure?

            The pressure that I refer to is the pressure to perform. Where there is an expectation to perform there is performance pressure. This pressure causes stress and the stress increases the pressure because it hampers performance (Cotterill, 2017). Under pressure to perform you stress about not performing. This is why I like looking at performing under pressure (an expectation) as opposed to performing under stress (a condition) because we can change how we manage the pressure to perform.

            Daniel McGinn (2017) looks at the pressure to perform at our very best. From his point of view, Olympians, musicians, and other high performers need to be at their very best to perform better than those around them. McGinn (2017) takes the view that we can prepare ourselves to cope with this pressure to perform.

            How is performing as an Olympian different than a CEO performing as the best version of herself? How is the pressure on executive boards to make important decisions different from a soccer team playing to win a tournament? There are vast differences between the risks, rewards, and competition between these examples. But wait, how are these pressures to perform similar? Reframing the outlook so that we focus on similarities feels more useful because we can then draw on knowledge and experience from areas around us. What about these pressures are the same? “These processes primarily involve the hormone adrenaline and the emotion of anxiety” McGinn (2017, p. 19).

            We therefore have a physiological response (the response that is triggered in your body) and a psychological response (the responses triggered in your conscious and subconscious). Granted, I may have less pronounced responses while under pressure to arrive at a meeting on time than when someone risks losing a couple of million Dollars! As a Soldier I had far different responses than when I was a Paramedic and these were different again from my response to pressure as a management consultant. Cotterill (2017) seems to agree that skills, risk, reward etc. differ greatly but that “the underpinning psychology appears to be similar” (Kindle-loc. 85).

            At the same time, a person under pressure to buy the correct gift may experience far greater anxiety that the CEO who is about to close a company. Merely calming down is also not the answer because some nervousness is good for your performance! There are many different exercises that one can do to prepare one’s mind and body for performance. These techniques range from mindfulness to techniques that can steady you within seconds; the ultimate preparation though seems to be prepared for the moment when things do not go as planned (McGinn, 2017).

            Would the board members of the PR firm have made decisions differently if they were ‘better’ under pressure? There is a good possibility. “The ability to perform, when it matters is a key characteristic of many performance domains of human endeavour” (Cotterill, 2017, kindle-loc. 62). Being preparing for the pressure is just as important than dealing with the pressure – few people just get up and perform well without preparation.

            Another source of pressure (or stress) resides deep within us. It is the pressure to perform and is seen as part of the human condition (Cotterill, 2017; McGinn, 2017) just as much as ambiguity and anxiety (Block, 2008, p. 20). From this I gather that, from the moment that we are required to perform we are already under pressure and experiencing stress. As the stakes increase the perception of pressure increases.

            Because the boards of the companies implicated in the irregularities are faced with a barrage of new challenges, they may be in a heightened stage of stress for which they are not prepared and under which they cannot perform. Cotterll (2017, Kindle-loc. 620) calls this form of not being able to perform when it matters “choking”. Choking occurs when people experience a heightened sense of stress, are distracted, experience anxiety, have a fear of making a mistake, or has a fear of the consequences of making a mistake, and experiencing pressure that we are not prepared for, etc. Cotterill (2017). Anxiety is one of many by-products of pressure and can be debilitating (Alder, Ford, Causer, & Williams, 2016). ‘Choking’ can be reframed as getting stuck or freezing under pressure. To become unstuck and to make progress we need to address the reason for getting stuck in the first place.

            The ability to cope under pressure will reduce anxiety and stress and will therefore directly increase the ability to perform. One way of coping is to become accustomed to pressure and stressors thereby allowing us to experience less anxiety… and the cycle continues (Alder et al., 2016; Cotterill, 2017). Cotterill (2017) calls this way of preparing for pressure “Pressure acclimatization training”. Red Bull’s Dr. Andy Whalshe calls this “stress inoculation” and explains that this can be used to help executives (and obviously other people) become familiar with how difficult it is to perform under pressure so that they can actually perform when the pressure is on (Bidwell & Walshe, 2017). The idea is to expose people to pressure and stress in a controlled environment so that they know how it feels and how they react. An example of such an environment is dialogic space that I spoke about earlier.

            It will take a long time for the pressure on these companies to dissipate. What is needed then is the skill to make the best decision while under this pressure by getting better at it and by creating spaces in which we can do this difficult bit of work.

By Niel Stander

If you want to know more about creating spaces and decision making under pressure, please do get in touch at niel.stander@sensibusconsulting.com.


Alder, D., Ford, P. R., Causer, J., & Williams, A. M. (2016). The effects of high- and low-anxiety training on the anticipation judgments of elite performers. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 38(1), 93.
Bidwell, M., & Walshe, A. (2017). 040 – democratising elite performance tools with dr. andy walshe of red bull stratos. Retrieved from http://innovationecosystem.com/podcast/040-democratising-elite-performance-tools-dr-andy-walshe-red-bull-stratos/
Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Cotterill, S. (2017). Performance psychology – theory and pratice. Abingdon: Routledge.
Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York, NY: Doubleday.
McGinn, D. (2017). Psyched up – how the science of mental preparation can help you succeed. UK: Penguin Random House.

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