Pressure Changes Everything

Why Managing Pressure is the New Competitive Advantage at Work

What do you do when you’re under pressure? How does it affect your decision making? Ability to connect? Listen? Think clearly? Perform?

Over the last seven years at the Institute for Health and Human Potential we have collected a great deal of information about how people experience, perceive and navigate pressure. We have undertaken a multiyear study of over twelve thousand people who are under pressure to answer the question: What is it about the top 10 percent of the individuals we studied that helps them handle pressure more effectively and be successful?

Each of the twelve thousand people we studied were assessed by anywhere from six to fourteen people, so in total we had more than one hundred thousand people assess the twelve thousand subjects. From this group of twelve thousand people, we identified the top 10 percent based on their manager’s performance ratings and we came away with critical insights.

The first insight that came from the data – as well as our work delivering Emotional Intelligence training programs to organizations and athletes around the world – may not come as a surprise but certainly was clear to us: pressure is the clear enemy of success. Pressure diminishes our ability to think clearly, make effective decisions, work on a team, be creative and meaningfully connect with others. It impairs our ability to manage and lead others. When under pressure, air traffic con­trollers, pilots, and oil rig chiefs make errors in judgment. ER doctors and nurses can make inappro­priate decisions and incorrect diagnoses. Actors forget their lines, pol­iticians forget their talking points or otherwise stumble and fumble. Leaders and managers miss opportunities to build relationships and lose the engagement and critical discretionary efforts of their team and organization.

The second is that because so few handle people pressure well, those who are able to perform under pressure a little better than others enjoy a distinct advantage in beings successful in their career, engaging their team and moving the organization forward. Given the plague that pressure has become in organizations around the world, navigating pressure is becoming the single most important difference maker between people who succeed at work from those who fail.

How does pressure affect us? Here are two ways (there are plenty more!)

Do you Choose Status or Expertise?

In extensive studies of teams at professional service firms, Heidi K. Gardner, an assistant professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard found that under pressure, teams become increasingly caught up with the risks of fail­ure, rather than the requirements of excellence. As a result, they revert to safe, standard approaches, instead of offering original solutions tai­lored to clients’ needs.

She found that when teams face significant performance pressure, they tend to defer to high-status members, at the expense of using ex­pert team members.  Gardner labels this phenomenon the performance pressure para­dox. Here’s how it develops: As pressure mounts, team members drive toward consensus in ways that shut out vital information. Without realizing it, they give more weight to shared knowledge and dismiss specialized expertise, such as insights into the client’s technologies, culture, and aspirations. The more generically inclined the team be­comes, the more mediocre the solutions they offer.

Getting Things Done or Doing Great Work?

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile is in the midst of a ten-year study looking at how time pressure in a corporate setting affects creativity.

In her groundbreaking research into creativity in the workplace, she has done what few researchers have ever attempted: observed cre­ativity as it was happening within teams who were supposed to be doing creative work.

“We believed that the best way to get real-time information on these individuals, the teams, and their work, in a relatively unobtrusive way, was to have the participants fill out an electronic ‘Daily Ques­tionnaire’ (DQ) for us. So every workday, Monday through Friday, the HBS computer emailed the DQ to everyone participating in the study; we asked participants to fill it out and send it back by the end of the day.” They collected more than 12,000 DQ’s a day!

“Perhaps the most surprising finding from our time pressure study is that time pressure really does seem to have an important impact on creativity, even though our intuitions are contradictory. I was very sur­prised to learn that, while our participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, they reported feeling more creative on those days. This helps me gain a bit of insight into those contradictory intuitions.”

Amabile’s research found that people get confused about time pressure and the difference between getting stuff done and doing good work (in the psychological literature, this is termed skilled based performance versus effort-based performance). Yes, time pressure can stop us from procrastinat­ing, get us to take action, and help us actually get more things done. Yet, as Amabile and her colleagues pointed out, time (and other pressure) might make you feel more creative, but it does not help you do higher quality work. In fact, it does just the opposite, usually with consequences to the project that is being worked on.

According to Am­abile, “When creativity is under the gun of time pressure, the proj­ect that group was working on usually ends up getting killed: it does not get supported by the company and it loses funding. Time pressure may drive people to get more done, but it causes them to think less cre­atively.”

Learn More About Managing Pressure

In our upcoming white paper, Pressure Changes Everything,you will not only learn more about these and other studies but I  will provide three Pressure Solutions from our book that you can use to perform more effectively in the face of pressure.

To get a full understanding of the impact of pressure on your performance and leadership, learn all 22 Pressure solutions, and understand how you can develop the qualtieis of the top 10% high pressure performers – Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiam – you can now order advance copies of the Performing Under Pressure book at

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