Acknowledge anxiety to enhance board decision-making

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus have tested boards as never before.

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus have tested boards as never before. Everyone wants to find a way forward, but with the government itself still unclear as to how and when we’ll be able to exit the measures now in place, boards are having to come up with strategies for the immediate, medium and long-term, despite not having all the facts and information to hand.

This is problematic because crisis situations are characterised by a threat to the long-term objectives and sustainability of the organisation. As humans, our survival depends on our ability to make predictions, and a primary function of the brain is to predict when and how we can avoid threats. Because the brain seeks to make accurate predictions, it has an aversion to uncertainty which causes anxiety. Levels of anxiety will be heightened in individuals and experienced collectively as a board.

Rather than pretending these feelings of anxiety don’t exist, or pushing them away, it’s important that we use these feelings to enhance decision-making. Emotion is a vital source of information. There is substantial evidence that we make better decisions if we intentionally assess our emotional state prior to making a decision. So adopting a ‘feel-think-act-review’ cycle ensures that boards can leverage all the information available, including emotional information.

This creates an opportunity to better define the problem that needs to be solved, create a richer dialogue, enhance engagement and leverage whole-brain thinking to consider all the options available.

It empowers boards to embrace the state of ‘not knowing’ and reduce anxiety as a consequence. Adopting a fluid decision-making cycle like this allows strategies to be created based on possible outcomes, including worst-case scenarios, which can be quickly reviewed in the light of fresh evidence to allow for new developments. In turn, this can protect the mental health of the directors by making them feel more in control, instilling them with a sense of destiny over our futures, something which is essential to our emotional well-being.

Alison Gill is a behavioural psychologist, a founding director and CEO of Bvalco and a lead tutor and Advisory Board Member for the FT’s Non-Executive Director Diploma. A former Olympian, she specialises in the human behaviour that can contribute to, or undermine, board effectiveness.

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