When Really Good People Make Really Bad Decisions

As originally seen in StickyMinds

By Kenton Bohn, Ryan McClish, Charlene Ceci – May 5, 2015


As IT plays a growing role in business strategy, the synergy between IT and business is more important than ever. Ryan McClish and Kenton Bohn work through the issues to keep their teams on the same page.

We’ve all been there: You have an important deliverable you plan to showcase to your business sponsors on Monday. The team has been working their fingers to the bone, and it’s coming down to the wire. The team wraps up their work late on Friday to high-fives all around.

As you’re eating breakfast Saturday morning, you remember a feature request your CEO suggested that didn’t make it into this release. You don’t want to look incompetent—or worse, indifferent. You can feel your face flush as you try to think of a way out. Should you call your boss? Should you email the CEO to own up to the accidental omission? Should you do nothing and hope he doesn’t notice? As you weigh your options, you decide to fix the problem yourself. You have the whole weekend, and it’s a small feature. No one will ever know.

“What Was I Thinking?”

You finish it Saturday night and, quite pleased with yourself, you contemplate checking your code into the demo environment. You know you shouldn’t do that without talking to your team, but the stakes are too high and you know you did good work. Pulse racing, you push the button. You log into the demo environment . . . and to your horror, nothing works. The demo is broken. As panic sets in, you contemplate the inevitable pain and embarrassment headed your way. You wonder how you could have done something so stupid. You broke every rule in the book.

So Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

To many people, the situation described above will seem painfully familiar. While the reasons we act out of character may vary, there clearly is one common denominator:


Have you ever heard someone claim to be a “clutch” performer? They say they are most effective in their work when the pressure is the highest. Well, don’t despair if you seem to be the only one who struggles when the heat gets turned up: They’re wrong.

At a recent talk, Bill Benjamin from the Institute for Health and Human Potential defined pressure as a situation where the outcome is very important and uncertain and you are being evaluated or judged based on that outcome. Although contrary to what many people think, Benjamin referenced research on brain science, including his organization’s study of twelve thousand people, that concludes pressure actually sabotages the ability to think clearly and make good decisions.

Where Pressure Comes From

There are effectively two parts of our brains that affect the quality of our thinking and decisions:

The rational brain—responsible for things like problem solving, conscious thought, and language
The emotional brain—responsible for things like feeling and instinct
Because we’re human, our rational brains are very powerful and often are in control. But when we’re put in situations that we interpret as personally risky, like a missed feature request from your CEO, our emotional brains want to protect us. And, if left unchecked, they will take charge.

When the emotional brain is in the driver’s seat, the body releases chemicals that trigger our “fight or flight” response. This emotional and physiological cocktail sabotages our decision-making. This is when really smart people (and teams) can make astonishingly bad decisions.

How to Recognize Pressure

Admittedly, the goal isn’t really to understand why we make bad decisions. We need to know how to make better ones.

Start by recognizing the warning signs of pressure. If you are high on the self-awareness scale, this might come naturally for you. Take stock of how your body physically responds when you experience stress. Are you breathing fast or blushing? Is your heart racing? Have the cold sweats?

Emotionally, you may have feelings of panic or dread or experience extreme anxiety or an inability to focus or think clearly. Everyone is a little different, but if you’re experiencing one or more of these signs, your body could be signaling that your emotional brain might be starting to take control! Sometimes it’s easier to spot the impact of pressure in someone else, so if you are on a team, keep an eye out for indications in teammates.

How Pressure Impacts Software Projects

Like any other team, software teams are dependent on everyone working together. When something disrupts this, the team becomes less efficient—or worse, disengaged.

While team pressure manifests itself in different ways based on individual and team management styles, the results are often the same. When not managed well, individual and team dysfunction grows and progress slows. This often translates into missed deadlines, blown budgets, and broken promises.

Here are some high-pressure personas that can manifest in your team.

The Mute

This is the person who always has an opinion but never speaks up. He has great ideas that would be valuable in solving the problem, but he typically feels like they just won’t be heard, so he keeps his thoughts and solutions to himself.

The Cowboy

This person stops following process. He cuts corners in the name of just getting it done. Often he becomes the hero at the last minute because he is the only one who knows what he changed.

The Director

This is the person who knows exactly what needs to get done and makes sure everyone is doing only what she wants them to do. She is also referred to as the “micromanager.” Nothing happens without her and the team becomes completely dependent on her to make progress.

The Hollow Man

This is the person who is nowhere to be found in the late afternoon. He shows up for his eight hours (at best) and is not really focused on the goal at hand.

The Eeyore

Just like the character from Winnie the Pooh, this person has no energy. She seems beaten down and defeated. This is the most contagious of all the personas and can have a damaging effect on the team’s morale and, ultimately, the productivity.

Whether your team is five people or twenty-five people, when they are put under pressure, you’re certain to find some of these personas. Each has its respective impacts, but they all introduce struggles for the team to make smart decisions.

Strategies to Manage Pressure

While research seems to indicate that no one is immune to the sabotaging effects of pressure, some people (either naturally or through training and practice) have the ability to manage or minimize stress.

In their book Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry offer solutions that can keep you out of the danger zone when the pressure is building. We’ve highlighted a few of their short-term solutions here to help you and your teams immediately, plus added a few we’ve seen work on our own teams.

Reset expectations

Just because you made a commitment doesn’t mean you can’t move the finish line. Often, pressure can be brought on simply because people have unreasonable expectations. Sometimes they were never set correctly in the beginning, and other times things change and the expectations stay set. It can be a hard conversation to reset expectations, but it can help relieve the pressure and enable you and your team to perform better.

Be positive

While thiscan be easier said than done, try making a decision or finding a way to maintain a positive attitude before and during high-pressure situations. If you struggle to get your mind right, try acting positive. Research indicates that simply acting the part can actually have an impact on your moods and feelings.

Shrink the challenge

ADuke player interviewed before the NCAA National Championship game once stated that his goal in preparation was to “not let the moment get too big.” Whether he knew it or not, he was shrinking the challenge. He was attempting to view this huge moment as just another game so that he could diminish the impact of pressure on his performance.

To go faster, slow down

Pressure in our teams often tempts us to think and react more quickly. However, problem-solving on a software team demands the ongoing engagement of our rational brains for work such as poring through vast and often conflicting requirements, evaluating trade-offs, and creating strategies. Slowing down can keep your rational brain engaged, protect you from stress and worry, and improve the quality of your thinking and decisions.

Be transparent

This might be challenging at first because it can be embarrassing to admit that we are feeling the effects of pressure. However, research indicates that simply sharing these feelings with others can actually reduce feelings of anxiety. Try being appropriately transparent with your teammates. I bet they’ll be more willing to listen than you think. You might even be surprised to learn that you are not alone. Even better, you can receive help or some fresh ideas (from an unpressured mind) on possible solutions.

Pressure Happens

No matter how intelligent, experienced, or professional you are, high-pressure situations are always a challenge.

All of us can learn to handle pressure better by knowing our triggers and being aware of the early warning signs. Do a little research and decide which pressure solutions work best for you and your team. And, above all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself!

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