How CEOs Can Perform Better Under Pressure


Original Publication: The CEO Magazine
Original Publication Date: February 27, 2015
After Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy destroyed property and lives, New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo established a commission to investigate the response, preparation, and management of New York’s power utility companies during these major storms that impacted the state. A short time later, Julie Howard, CEO of Navigant Consulting, learned that a newspaper was running a story about her company and its connection to this investigation.

Julie was shocked: The article was questioning Navigant’s work with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA). Worse yet, these allegations were going to be investigated by federal prosecutors, who would determine if criminal charges would be filed against Navigant. Julie knew her company had not engaged in any wrongdoing, but the damage to Navigant’s reputation from this article – and investigation – could be significant.

Julie was experiencing the three factors of a high-pressure situation: uncertainty, importance and being judged.

What should CEOs do in pressure situations? The training and performance experts at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) studied more than 12,000 people under pressure – including CEOs in organizations as diverse as the US Navy, Intel, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson – and found certain patterns emerge.

First, CEO’s worry about how they appear to others. After learning of the investigation, Julie felt like she was in a fishbowl, which is a common feeling among people in the top job. They worry if they’re good enough, smart enough and worthy of the CEO position.

Additionally, CEO’s behavior is often driven more by avoiding failure than attaining success. This is dangerous, and can influence a CEO or senior leader’s judgement, without their awareness.

When facing a pressure situation, CEOs should ask themselves: are my behavior or decisions being driven by avoiding failure or concern about how I appear to others?

Julie took some deep breaths, then studied the situation and developed a plan. She pro-actively approached the US Attorney’s office, offering full cooperation and enabling them to conduct and conclude its review as swiftly as possible. She promised investigators that Navigant would share whatever information was needed. The investigators at the US Attorney’s office appreciated her direct, transparent approach (as opposed to being dismissive or defensive). This approach was a risk: if the investigation didn’t end well, Julie and Navigant would lose money and reputation.

After a thorough review, however, the investigation was closed without any indication of wrongdoing on Navigant’s part – a favorable outcome.

While most CEOs (hopefully!) won’t face criminal investigation, as Julie did, they all face pressure situations every day. “Pressure Solutions” – actionable techniques to implement in pressure moments – will help. Three of the 22 “Pressure Solutions” from the new book Performing Under Pressure include:

Recognize that you’re worthy.

    • Affirm your self-worth by acknowledging your experience, skills and other positive qualities, an effective way to buffer yourself from the pressure situation and reduce your anxiety. Julie felt pressure from juggling the expectations of the board, investors, employees, clients and other key stakeholders. The weight of pressure in such a situation doesn’t just come from feeling responsible to deliver — that’s the conventional thought. A huge component of pressure makes us worry that people watching us will judge us. You can rise to the occasion. Don’t worry about what others are thinking.

Don’t try to be better than your best. Remember, what got you to here will get you there. Many CEO’s believe that they need to be or do something different to be successful in their position – and during pressure situations. They don’t. They have everything they need to succeed. Olympic athletes think they need to do something different when they perform at the high-stakes Olympics, but to maximize their success, they just need to do what they’ve done before. CEOs should use the same approach.

Be a control freak. For many of us – from CEOs to Olympic athletes – a pressure moment can undermine our performance because we focus on factors we can’t control. When you focus on “unontrollables,” you increase the pressure, which boosts your anxiety and disturbs your physiology, creating distracting thoughts that negatively impact your confidence and performance. Focus instead on what you can control. Julie couldn’t control the criminal investigation against Navigant, but she could control her reaction to it. Instead of focusing on all of the “what if’s,” Julie managed her anxiety and fear, and focused on proving her company’s innocence, which she did successfully.

About the Author

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 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.

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