Achieving Peak Performance in High Stress Situations

Performing Under Pressure

Pressure adversely impacts cognitive success.  When we feel pressure we are not able to perform cognitively because our brains do not work effectively. 

“Performing Under Pressure” by Weisenger and Pawliw is a great book for the work that done in organizational coaching.  The premise of the book is that people seem to perpetuate the myth that we perform performance is better under pressure without recognizing the negative outcomes for allowing oneself to live in these pressure situations.  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.

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.  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.  What 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.

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.

The authors suggests an acronym for dealing with performing under pressure-COTE.  The “C” stands for confidence.  Defined by the author, confidence is the degree to which you believe you can influence a specific outcome.  The good news about confidence is that is it malleable and can change over time so focusing on building confidence can bring about results.  Weisinger and Pawliw encourage us to evaluate our own levels of competence and then create a starting point for developing more confidence.  Suggestions he makes to building confidence include; be at your best physically and mentally, seek feedback, create micro-successes by chunking down your goals, and take responsibility for your actions.

The “O” represents optimism.  Weisinger and Pawliw contend that confidence shows up in the moment while optimism shows up on either side of confidence.  Think about a recent activity that you may not have felt confident about.  Your thoughts may have taken you into what wouldn’t be possible instead of what was.  And then if we are less successful than we had wanted to be we beat ourselves up after the event.  The authors encourage us to build an optimism vocabulary so when events happen when we are feeling a little less confident we are using words that spur confidence rather than diminish it.

Next comes tenacity.  Tenacity requires us to see setbacks as opportunities, leverage agility when experiences are not what we anticipated or wanted, and encourages us to keep an open mind to learning new things.  In order for us to be tenacious we have to know where we are going.  Where are you focusing and do you maintain vigilance towards the things that are important to you?  Have you established rituals that help you maintain effort towards your ultimate mission or goal?  For example, if you goal is to write a new book, attain a new position, or even to lose weight you have to have rituals that will take you into success.  Tenacity also requires us to potentially take a new direction when we are not successful.  If you would like a new role in your organization but are not offered it, what else could you do?  How could you use your skills to be successful in another area?

Finally, the “E” represents enthusiasm and the energy we bring to our endeavor.  Enthusiasm is contagious and draws people to us.  When we are not enthusiastic we appear cold, indifferent, lethargic, or even pessimistic.  The energy we generate towards that which matters to us provides us with the boost that can take us into greater success.  It also could enlist others in helping us achieve our goals.  The authors suggest that we can increase our enthusiasm by doing things that energize us such as listening to music that motivates, recalling positive events from our past, and even taking a walk.  Many of the leaders that I have worked with have a song they play when they need to generate energy and also know the songs that bring the energy up for their teams.

Weisenger and Pawliw have definitely engaged us in paradigm shifts about performing under pressure.  When we understand the limits of pressure and apply their suggestions for dealing with it, we can move more quickly in the direction of our success.

To Your Success!

Dr. Peggy

  • Wesinger, H. & Pawliw-Fry, J.P. (2015) Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. New York, NY: Crown Business.
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