Performing Under Pressure-Part 1

Some people thrive under pressure, but pressure can also ruin your performance, it can push you down angles which you don’t want to go.
-Henry Cavill

Recently we read the book “Performing Under Pressure” by Weisenger and Pawliw  for the work that we do in organizational coaching. The premise of the book is that people seem to perpetuate the myth that we perform better under pressure and as such do not recognize the negative outcomes for allowing ourselves to live in these pressure situations. This blog is the first of two blogs that will explore the facts about performing under pressure as well as outline solutions for overcoming the pressures we feel to perform in our daily lives.

In order to examine the impact of pressure on our performance, we must distinguish between pressure and stress. Weisenger and Pawliw suggest that stress becomes pressure when the results matter. They also differentiate between stress and pressure based upon the anticipated outcome. With stress, reduction is the goal. However, with pressure, success is the goal. This is a key differentiator as our success will be dependent upon our ability to distinguish between pressure and stress and react appropriately to stress. Wayne Dyer in “Being in Balance “ tells us that there are no stress events only stress thoughts. What he is sharing is that it is our reaction to what is happening that determines the outcome. How can you think differently about the things that stress you about your own performance as a leader, follower, parent, or partner in order to reframe their importance to you? In my coaching I find that sometimes people will assign stories to the stresses in their lives that actually magnify the stresses.

The major determinants for performing under pressure include; the outcome is important, the outcome is uncertain, and/or you are being judged on the outcome. Chip Conley in “Emotional Equations”  shares this belief with his equation-anxiety=uncertainty x powerlessness. When we are feeling out of control with a task that we have to perform, we become more and more anxious as uncertainty about the result or outcome rises. Conley recommends making a balance sheet that records what you do know and what you can influence. More solutions will follow in next month’s blog.

Performance CoachingWhat are the facts about performance under pressure? The first fact we need to examine is that pressure is the enemy of success. There is an abundance of information about success available and nowhere in that information is it recommended that we put ourselves in pressurized situations in order to become more successful. In fact, Canfield in “The Principles of Success” proposes a number of recommendations that are directed at reducing the pressure we feel to succeed such as: “stay focused on your core genius; experience your fear and take action anyway; and believe in possibilities.”

The second fact is that pressure adversely impacts cognitive success. When we feel pressure we are not able to perform cognitively because our brains do not work effectively. Pressure felt as stress floods the brain with hormones that bring emotions to the forefront with logic taking a back seat. Pressure also affects cognitive success because the thoughts created from the pressure take up space in our brains and do not allow us room to think of anything else. Finally, we are less creative when working to deadlines, less effective in getting things done in a creative way and actually experience a decrease in our creativity for up to 48 hours. Being creative is sometimes our best resource for addressing both the new and old problems.

A third fact is that pressure is often camouflaged as support. Conventional tools for incenting behaviors along with cheering for the success of others can often derail another person’s success if they believe the situation to be a “make or break” moment. The human in all of us wants to be accepted and acknowledged and if we interpret a situation as risking this acceptance it may actually increase pressure on us. Knowing how a person wants to be incented or supported can go along way to remedying this situation.

Finally, we admire people who seem to rise to the occasion and function superbly under pressure. The fact is that the statistics do not bear this premise out. What the authors found is that these individuals have developed better processes for dealing with pressure and effectively apply these processes in pressure situations.

For the next month, think about what you are saying about the stresses you are facing in your life currently. Questions to ask yourself include: will I be upset about this situation tomorrow, in one month, in one year? It’s all about asking yourself if you are spending a dollar on a ten cent problem!

To Your Success!
Dr. Peggy