Original Publication: HR.COM
Original Publication Date: June 16, 2015


Martin Murray was chosen to be on the ‘high potential’ list athis Fortune 100 firm. An athlete in his youth, he had gone toimpressive schools and had built an impressive life and career. Importantly, he had that exquisite balance of smarts with the ability to work well with others.

All was going well for Martin until his next assignment, where he was given the task of managing a key customer at one of the world’s largest IT companies. It was, in his estimation, a ‘dog’ business unit that was in chaos and had been for some time. Martin was responsible for turning the business unit around.

Martin worked incredibly hard but faced one seemingly intractable problem after another. The pressure to deliver was relentless. Martin’s manager didn’t help: he was so anxious for Martin to fix the problem that he infected the whole organization with his anxiety. This manager didn’t understand that he was having a negative impact on everyone around him, including Martin. Martin was so afraid to make a major mistake that he wouldn’t take any risks at all and, as a result, the problems remained. The breaking point came when a major initiative with one of their biggest clients came off the rails at a critical juncture. At an emergency meeting with the senior team, Martin’s manager scolded Martin in front of the team, essentially blaming him for not solving the client’s problem.

It was a horrifying experience. In the uncomfortable meeting with the senior team, Martin wasn’t able to form any type of coherent response because he was so shocked by the negative things his boss was saying about his performance. It became clear to Martin that there was no way he was going to be able to rehabilitate his career at the organization. He believed he had no choice but to leave. He wasn’t wrong.

Reflecting back on the situation, Martin realizes that while he could not necessarily change his manager’s behavior, he could have handled his reaction to the pressure situation – both in leading the business unit and in the meeting itself – very differently.

In some ways, he even feels that his manager might have been right: He was partially to blame for the lack of traction they were having in improving the unit. He realizes now that, because of the significant amount of pressure he felt to be perfect (a common feeling among high potentials),he stopped taking risks. He didn’t take the bold steps required to have any chance of turning around the unit.

If you find yourself on ‘the list,’ in a new position, or accepting new responsibilities, there are a number of things you can do to manage pressure more effectively.

To start, know that you are not alone if the idea of managing pressure is new to you. When conducting research on over 12,000 individuals from around the world to research our New York Times best-selling book, Performing Under Pressure, we were surprised to learn that most people take a haphazard approach to pressure. They don’t think about how they handle pressure, much less use the latest findings in neuroscience to guide them.

Instead, most use what they learned from their role models in life: their parents, coaches and teachers.They might have gotten lucky and had great role models growing up or early in their careers or they might not have. Either way, we have found that most people have not developed the learnable skills that can help them when they are, like Martin, under immense pressure.

So if you are under pressure at work, what can you do?

Commit to becoming a ‘student of human behavior’.

Do the work it takes to fully understand how pressure affects you. Start by bringing some insight to your ‘default’ behaviors: the patterns of your reactionsto pressure. What do you feel in your body, what emotions do you experience and what thoughts go through your mind? What behaviors do you engage in? Do you go quiet? Get agitated? Become impatient? Stop listening? Make rash decisions? Become indecisive?There is not a wrong answer to this question; there is only information. Without this information, you will be lost when pressure hits. You won’t know how to take control. Most importantly, if you do not understand your default behaviors, you will have no clueabout the impact your behaviors have on your team or business.

For Martin, part of his default behavior was to become overly sensitive to how others viewed him. He didn’t want to disappoint his boss or organization. He didn’t want to fall off the list (as 5-20% of high potentials do each year). In professional situations, hebecame tentative. He shut down. He stopped taking risks. As a consequence, his reputation took a hit. People came to see him as a talented person who was great to work with, but when pressure went up, he went down. He didn’t stay strong. He was so worried about what others thought of him that he didn’t make bold moves, hold people accountable, engage inthe tough conversations and, ultimately,didn’t get the desired results.

See the physical sensations you experience differently.

After you have gained insight into what your default behaviors are in pressure situations, you have an opportunity to exert some control. For most of us (because we take a haphazard approach to pressure) we don’t realize that we have a choice when it comes to how we interpret or ‘see’ the physical sensations we experience while under pressure. For instance, we each havestrong physical sensations under pressure: whether it be the lump in the throat, butterflies in the stomach, clammy palms, or maybe we feel like our heart is going to pop out of our chest because it is beating so intensely. An NBA coach I have worked with literally would get physically sick 30 minutes before games.

Part of the reason we underperform in a pressure moment is because we label these uncomfortable feelings as ‘bad’ or a threat to us and we spend precious resources of focus trying to push them away (after all, if they make us feel bad, they can’t be helpful, right?). We do everything in our power to not feel these uncomfortable sensations and we subtly lose focus and our performance suffers. Instead of pushing it away, see if you can change the way you view these sensations.

For instance, we teach Olympic athletes,Marines and business people around the world to see these sensations not as a threat or a crisis but instead as the ‘body getting ready to perform’ (a good thing). They are an indication that you’re about to show your stuff or share what you have been working diligently on. When we change our relationship to these sensations,they lose their hold over us. Now, more of our focus can be on the task at hand and our performance improves. So a threat or a crisis becomes an opportunity.

After his disastrous experience, Martin vowed,never again. He invested time and energy to learn howto manage pressure more effectively (it helped that his next organization placed a high value on this learning). While Martin wasn’t a different person, he learned to see physical sensations very differently. He started to trust that he could feel uncomfortable and still be successful, which made all the difference in the world. He is now less worried about what others think of him (though he still is to a certain degree) and is more bold in pressure situations, which is allowing his natural smarts and his ability to work with others to flourish, even in pressure situations.

So if you are the feeling the heat of being on a high potential list or have taken on a new role or new responsibility, know that you have options to manage pressure more effectively. You don’t need to leave it up to chance. It starts by being a keen student of human behavior – knowing what you do and experience under pressure – and then, importantly,changing your relationship to the physical sensations you feel. Not only does the probability go up that you will perform better, but the pressure-filled experience takes a lot less out of you. You might even one day see the more uncomfortable physical sensations you experience in pressure moments as an indication that you are truly living. PM-ITM

Author Bio
Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry, an internationally renowned expert, trainer, and speaker at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), is one of the world’s most highly respected resources on pressure and performance. His New York Times Best Selling book, Performing Under Pressure (co-written with Hendrie Weissinger), provides actionable “pressure solutions” that maximize success during pressure situations, as well as real-world examples from his clients, including corporate executives, Olympic athletes, and Navy SEALS. He also offers in-depth, science-based research about pressure’s impact on the brain and, ultimately, our performance.