Reducing the Stress of Management Decision-Making in Complex Contexts

Dawna Jones
Oct 12 · 6 min read

If managers feel more stressed, there is a good reason. The role is more complex than ever. Most companies continue to repeat patterns of risk aversion, assuming that what worked in the past will also work today. It will not. Environmental complexity has everything to do with it. More data, less time, intense pressure, and high stress combine into a numbing cocktail that derails critical thinking, contextual awareness, or impact. Being able to read the dynamics running in the context demands self-management and self-regulation in order to respond to the context appropriately.

Little is done to support managers in making the switch from conventional causal thinking to eco-systemic thinking, in order to perceive the dynamic interactions that rule networks. What looks like a simple decision has a ripple effect, part causal; part not that ripples through the entire network internally and externally. For instance, a company fires its Agile coaches believing that they are causing trouble and making employees harder to control. Acting on the fear of losing control over people, the decision to drop the coaching role ignites a series of interactions. The reaction reverts to the default patterns of authority-based relationships, sacrificing flexibility and responsiveness for feeling in control of human and company potential. The value generated by a more flexible, adaptive approach is jettisoned, leaving the company raw and exposed to more disruption. Talented employees who, through coaching or other means, experienced autonomy and freedom to contribute, either leave or disengage, unable to fight the undertow back to the past. Centralized authority is maintained at the cost of elevated risk exposure. Reputational trust in the company suffers damage when the talk sounds progressive while pedalling backwards to avoid novelty. Word and action are not in alignment. The vocabulary might sound Agile but the style is business as usual. What looks like a ‘logical’ decision morphs into costly consequences for the well-being of the people and the sustainability of the business.

Complex decision-making environments and role complexity challenge decision-makers to raise their skills. Researcher Theo Dawson has developed an assessment tool that allows the measurement of skills matching the role ( The data reveals a gap between the complexity of the role and the current skill level worldwide. The gap widens as seniority advances. The stress this imposes on people performing the management role shows up in depression and stress-related leave including absenteeism and ricochets throughout the company’s nervous system. Middle managers are most at risk, standing in the awkward intersection of high demands and low levels of authority in companies still attached to centralized decision-making. Decentralizing decision making is core to responsiveness. Middle managers must have control over decisions that impact their roles in the same way teams have to be given autonomy to achieve their goals. Developing skills is the best way to ensure that the pressures do not crush initiative, well-being or compromise executive decision-making capacity. The alternative is to accelerate the company’s death by rigidity.

Used with permission of Theo Dawson of

The skills are simple. Mastering them is not. Known as soft skills, so named for their underrated value, these skills serve as the foundation for resilience, well-being, sense-making, seeing ahead, for being prepared for whatever life serves up and for spotting the invisible barriers to peak performance. The list below describes the application at the macro-level. The meta-skills are deceptively fundamental, so are easily underestimated or dismissed.

Top Macro Skill Sets for Meeting Complex Contexts Fully Prepared

Perspective Shifting: Seeing the world through the lens of someone who’s opinions you disagree with, or through your customers’. Make no assumptions about what you think you know about how people see their world.

Perspective Seeking: Ask, listen, understand what values underpin diverse viewpoints. The more diversity of views you bring into your decision-making, the better the chance of seeing the big picture and reducing foreseeable consequences.

Contextual Awareness: Being able to discern (a higher consciousness faculty) how deep emotions are impacting the decision-making environment. To what extent is fear permeating decisions? To what extent is trust powering creative collaboration?

Collaboration Readiness: Collaboration challenges personal attachment to self-identity and self-worth, motivating a higher level of confidence and trust in oneself. It is an opportunity to leave behind the lower form of ego, where competing with others prevails, to enter into high-quality relationships where your contribution has value only by being who you are. The skills of cooperation are inherent in collaboration.

Comfortable with Tensions, Conflict and Ambiguity: You may not start off being comfortable, but using the space conflict and tension present to uncover the point of truth in each contribution releases collective intelligence and collaborative capacity. It also takes courage and trust in yourself.

Considering Impact: If decision-makers of the past had considered the impact of their decisions, climate change would not be the global risk it is today. Does your decision serve systemic health? Does it cause harm ecologically, socially? Seeking an ethical path is difficult but a worthy pursuit, given that the choices made today, shape tomorrow’s future.

Deep Dynamics and Deeper Meaning: The resounding call for more profound meaning is powering career shifts and alignment with pure self-expression beyond societal and social expectations. Diving deep means listening as if your body were a sonar device, detecting emotional energy and frequency and using that data to find the way. Connecting heart and mind restores clarity and empathy. The skill of listening deeply, of sensing the context, is ancestral in nature when the connection to all forms of life was essential for survival. Now we are circling back to connecting to what matters, to each other, to nature, to all of life.

Overcoming the Complexity Challenge

Cognitive overwhelm is a by-product of the complexity gap, and it is something that can be addressed. Steven Kotler of the Flow Research Collective has been unpacking the neurochemistry and neurobiology of flow states. Fortunately for the average human, stepping into the zone between the challenge and advancing skills also reduces cognitive overwhelm. Steven’s research shows that a comfortable stretch is 4%. Not a daunting stretch, yet nevertheless requires a willingness to participate. If leaders and managers would like to reduce their stress, and restore control to their lives, then using complexity to develop skills is a perfect playground.

Humility holds the hope for civilization. Knowing that you don’t know everything there is to know opens the door. Saying yes to the challenge of learning how to make better decisions in the context of complexity is one way to prepare you for whatever emerges. We need leaders who can use adversity to advance their skills to adapt their thinking to shape a world with hope for all. Businesses and society will benefit.

The Choice Conference in Madrid, October 18–19th, 2019 is an opportunity to explore and expand your thinking and experience with diving deeper. Listen to the pre-conference panels, or come, then contribute afterward. These are interesting times for leaders at every level with shifts happening one micro-choice at a time.

Author, high impact speaker and program designer Dawna Jones develops decision-maker capacity for using complex issues to shift perspective, freeing suppressed human and organizational potential. Her customized learning programs advance skills in decision-making, accelerating responsiveness and transformative resilience. Adept in perceiving the deep dynamics and working with emergent events, Dawna’s strategic insights provide clarity. Learning experiences draw on novelty, plus a profound understanding of the biology of the human spirit.

Dawna wrote “Decision Making for Dummies”; contributed to ‘The Intelligence of the Cosmos” by Ervin Laszlo, and co-authored “From Hierarchy to High Performance”. Host of the Inspirational Insights podcast and Evolutionary Provocateur podcast. Contact her on LinkedIn.

Dawna Jones

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Collectively designing a better world through conscious decision-making leadership. Inspirational Insights, Leadership, Strategic Insights, Author-Speaker.

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