Zoned Out: Decision Makers’ Surprising Response to the Covid-19 Crisis
As Covid-19 endures, Americans are reacting with uncertainty and anxiety that themselves are reaching pandemic proportions. Leaders of Corporate America are not immune from these feelings, which research has shown produces a response that many may find surprising: boredom.
With so much on their plates, how can decision makers be bored? Equally important, why is CEO boredom a threat to corporate performance and what can be done about it?
First, it’s important to understand what boredom is. In a research titled Research on Emotion in Organizations, Volume XVI, October 2020, Du Preez and her colleagues established boredom as a subjective feeling experienced when the mind either has nothing interesting to focus on or when it becomes overwhelmed.
The overwhelming nature of the current Covid-19 pandemic and its broad impact on business, which lead to elevated levels of pressure and anxiety, are the reasons many CEOs are currently experiencing boredom. Simply put, the excessive ambiguity and complexity faced by decision makers is so overwhelming that they become prone to mentally “checking out.” Thankfully, our brain can gauge decisions of uncertainty by analyzing internal signals and making appropriate adjustments to initial decisions.
Du Preez’s research points out that boredom is the most detrimental emotion-mood affecting executive decision-making. It significantly increases the probability of bias, making corporate decision makers prone to excessive risk-taking and an inappropriate sense of confidence. These emotional reactions occur within eight milliseconds after an event is perceived. And, their influence on the decisions we make is consequential.
Learning Neutralizes Boredom
Astute CEOs turn boredom into a catalyst for action. They are open to embrace new experiences, especially learning, which has a strong positive impact on boredom. Learning encompasses listening and allowing, preconditions to sharpening one’s ability to make appropriately confident decisions — the most important decision-making competence to master.
The three best ways to sharpen decision-making when high uncertainty triggers boredom involve:
- Listening: Successful decision-makers develop ways to listen to their environment, to others and, most important, to their inner emotions. Before acting, they pause and reflect on whether their emotions help or impair their decisions-making capacity in each situation.
Numerous Western and Eastern philosophical teachings and practices bring wisdom and an understanding of how to cope with uncertainty and distress. Among them, Buddhism offers us the practice of mindfulness — the ability to listen with an active awareness and pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness helps us observe our biases, patterns, preferences, and choose the most viable response rather than react through default patterns embedded in our mind.
The awareness that Buddhism teaches is radically different from the one we use in our everyday mode of consciousness. It trains our mind to refrain from judgement and focus on the present moment. This fosters beginner’s mind — noticing things without preconceived notions, feelings or emotions that would shape our response.
Some of the of world’s most influential decision makers compare mindfulness to equipping their thinking with an enhanced operating system, that allows them to maintain clarity, build resilience, improve relationships, cultivate flexibility, and experience better performance.
- Allowing: Research conducted by Harvard Business Review defines “allowing” as being open to what is happening without personal judgment. It is not about being passive or weak, rather about developing a curiosity, inquisitiveness and desire for learning that empowers us to better face up to what is actually going on in each passing moment. To do this, leaders must become deeply curious and familiar with their own self.
The counterproductive decision biases triggered by feelings of boredom can be neutralized by actively engaging in learning. In her research “The Business Case for Curiosity,” Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, underscores how curiosity is more than ever tied to enterprise performance: “When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions.”
- Appropriate Confidence: Du Preez’s research shows that corporate decision makers who remain accurately confident (neither overconfident nor underconfident) during times of uncertainty are able to implement viable decisions, outperforming their peers and growing their businesses. They have developed a habit of checking their assumptions about what they know and what they don’t know under different circumstances. This empowers them to think clearly, consider different perspectives, and forecast more accurately.
How do they do it? A large part of this process involves the Buddhist concept of taking the middle path. The middle path (or way) represents the middle ground between attachment and aversion.
For the mind, the middle way acts as a map. It guides us in avoiding the pitfalls of extreme views and enables us to understand the power and limitations of the self. Pursuing the middle path does not mean taking a passive stance or submitting to a compromise. Rather, it is an exercise in courage and humility to confront our intrinsic disposition to a dualistic interpretation of events in life.
Many key decision makers have embraced the middle way as a path to recognizing and accepting their limitations. A source of awareness and balance, and an antidote to feeling overwhelmed or underwhelmed.
Prudent corporate leaders recognize that the mind is truly in control of one’s perception of reality. Taking the middle way allows them to appreciate the importance of knowing themselves, the emotions they are most prone to experience under duress and to leverage emotional information to become even better decision makers.
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