Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most

Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most

by Hendrie Weisinger, J. P. Pawliw-Fry

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Nobody performs better under pressure. Regardless of the task, pressure ruthlessly diminishes our judgment, decision-making, attention, dexterity, and performance in every professional and personal arena. In Performing Under Pressure, Drs. Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry introduce us to the concept of pressure management, offering empirically tested short term and long term solutions to help us overcome the debilitating effects of pressure.
Performing Under Pressure tackles the greatest obstacle to personal success, whether in a sales presentation, at home, on the golf course, interviewing for a job, or performing onstage at Carnegie Hall. Despite sports mythology, no one "rises to the occasion" under pressure and does better than they do in practice. The reality is pressure makes us do worse, and sometimes leads us to fail utterly. But there are things we can do to diminish its effects on our performance. 
Performing Under Pressure draws on research from over 12,000 people, and features the latest research from neuroscience and from the frontline experiences of Fortune 500 employees and managers, Navy SEALS, Olympic and other elite athletes, and others. It offers 22 specific strategies each of us can use to reduce pressure in our personal and professional lives and allow us to better excel in whatever we do.
Whether you’re a corporate manager, a basketball player, or a student preparing for the SAT, Performing Under Pressure will help you to do your best when it matters most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804136730
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/24/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 120,821
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

HENDRIE WEISINGER, Ph.D.,  is a world-renowned psychologist and pioneer in the field of pressure management, as well as the author of a number of bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT.
J.P. PAWLIW-FRY is an international performance coach and advisor to Olympic athletes and senior business executives. Among his clients are Marriott, Unilever, Allstate and the Orlando Magic. Formerly he taught executive education at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.  He is president of the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), a research firm that trains and coaches leaders and organizations to perform more effectively under pressure.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Power of Pressure

Have you ever thought about how you handle pressure in your marriage? You would be wise to. Of all the things that make marriages difficult, the inability to manage pressure tops the list.

The “Love Lab” sits near Yesler Terrace in Central Seattle, Washington, between Seattle University and Swedish Cherry Hill Medical Center, on East Jefferson Street. Officially, it is known as the Relationship Research Institute, and the nondescript white brick building is home to two of the leading experts on relationships in the world: Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman. The institute’s nickname suggests a bohemian enterprise, but it is anything but that.

A professor emeritus at the University of Washington, John Gottman has spent a lifetime studying more than three thousand couples in research and four thousand more couples in intervention and treatment. He is the author of 190 published academic articles and author or coauthor of 40 books, including the New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. As a team, the Drs. Gottman have worked with approximately eight thousand couples in workshop and therapy settings.

Of their many empirical findings, none is more amazing than this one statistic: They can predict, with 93.6 percent accuracy, which couples will divorce. To put that number in context, the odds of making a chance prediction with 90 percent accuracy are 1 to .0000000000000000001.

How do they do it? Armed with decades of clinical research and data, Dr. John Gottman examines how couples interact when under pressure. That single element—pressure—whether managed or succumbed to in a difficult conversation, is a more accurate predictor than financial and social compatibility, “chemistry,” or any number of other commonly held relationship keystones. It’s all about pressure.

In his research, the psychologist recognized that many variables thought to be important for a successful marital relationship are not in fact predictive of whether couples stay together. What he looked at instead was how couples interact when they feel the heat or experience the pressure that comes with discussing a contentious issue. He found that couples who can’t navigate their way through the pressure experience crack and divorce.

John Gottman’s scientific methodology is rigorous. Couples are hooked up to state-of-the-art apparatuses so physiological responses—heart rate, galvanic skin conductance—can be measured and connected to how the couple is acting and how they’re responding to each other. Are they relaxed? Psychologically aroused? On edge? At the same time, trained observers record and code their behavior or body language, facial expressions, voice inflection—all of which is later connected to their dialogue and physical reactions. “Do the partners look at each other when speaking to each other, smile, or frown? . . . Do they lean into each other or lean away? Are they open and expansive or closed and contracted? How long does it take for their voices to sound angry?” It is a lot of data and it is analyzed meticulously.

Dr. Gottman’s data-heavy approach has been incorporated into the work of thousands of therapists, and has changed the course of countless relationships. He has challenged traditional marriage counseling techniques. He has suggested that some of the techniques that therapists routinely use simply do not make much of a difference in a marriage, and may even be counterproductive. For instance, the idea of “active listening,” where partners are encouraged to use “I statements” and play back what their partner is feeling in a conversation. For many years this has been the bedrock of marriage counseling. Yet according to Gottman’s data, it makes virtually no difference in the success of a relationship or in therapy.

According to Gottman, “If your partner is saying, ‘You’re terrible,’ according to active listening, you are supposed to be able to empathize and be understanding. We found in our research that hardly anybody does that, even in great marriages. When somebody attacks them, they attack right back.”

Gottman says, “Well, it kind of makes sense. Let’s say my wife is really angry with me because I repeatedly haven’t balanced the checkbook and the checks bounce. I keep saying: ‘I’m sorry, and I’ll try not to do it again.’ So finally she gets angry and confronts me in a therapy session. What would it accomplish if I say: ‘I hear what you’re saying, you’re really angry with me, and I can understand why you’re angry with me because I’m not balancing the checkbook.’ That’s not going to make her feel any better; I still haven’t balanced the damned checkbook!”

His lab identified negative behavior patterns that can take couples down the path to divorce. One is negative criticism, stating your complaints as a defect in your partner’s personality: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” Another negative behavior is contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest single predictor of divorce. For example, telling your partner, “You’re an idiot.” A third is defensiveness: making excuses for one’s behavior or accusing your partner—“You always blame me, I am always the bad guy.” Defensiveness is used to ward off a perceived attack. The last is stonewalling and emotional withdrawal, such as when the listener intentionally ignores the speaker, fails to provide the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker, or simply doesn’t respond to what the speaker is communicating.

What Dr. Gottman was able to determine is that success is less about the “chemistry” that exists between a couple and has more to do with how they manage their own internal chemistry as they interact under the pressure of threatening conversations.

The more a couple/individual cannot handle pressure, the more “physiologically aroused, mentally rigid, and impulsive they become during a conflict. This state of affairs increases the likelihood they will engage in destructive communication patterns that inevitably decrease marital satisfaction and increase marital dissatisfaction.” Dr. Gottman found that happily married couples handle the pressure of conflict more effectively and are able to make conversational repair attempts even in the middle of an argument.

At heart, what the Love Lab has found is that if you want your marriage to be long and enjoyable, you need to learn to handle pressure—and hope your partner can handle it too.

Truths About Pressure

There are three basic and powerful truths about pressure. They are powerful because they influence our life every day, often in ways that we are not aware of, and almost always to our detriment.

The first is that pressure disrupts what we value most: our relationships, our careers, our parenting effectiveness, and our core ethical and moral decision-making. The consequences of pressure can break a marriage, derail a career, and cause children to pull away from their parents or feel the need to cheat to meet their parents’ expectations. And it can compromise our very integrity.

The second truth is that people who handle pressure better than others do not “rise to the occasion” or perform statistically better than they do in non-pressure situations. If you are a sports fan, you’ve been fed a myth by the media that some athletes are “clutch” performers who do better under pressure. Or maybe you’ve heard that some people at work do more creative work, are more productive, work better as a team, or add more value to a client under pressure. But it’s not true. Moreover, perpetuating this fiction only exacerbates poor performance under pressure.

The third truth, confirmed by our study of more than twelve thousand people and conducted over a ten-year period, is that you simply need to leverage the natural pressure management tools each of us already possesses to counteract pressure’s injurious effects. When it comes to handling pressure, most individuals fail to leverage these tools, and thus handicap themselves.

These insights regarding pressure have specific applications in organizations of all kinds because individuals and teams react to pressure in predictable ways. Being aware of these truths in your daily activities will help you achieve your best possible performance when you need it the most. More important, it will allow you to remove the damaging effects that pressure creates for you. Let’s look at a few examples of people under pressure both within organizations and outside of organizations to see why they react as they do, and to better understand the circumstances that amplify the negative effects of pressure.

The Sabotaging Force of Pressure

Heidi K. Gardner is an assistant professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard, where she studies how pressure impacts team dynamics. Professor Gardner’s research suggests that teams like to think they do their best work when the stakes are highest—when the company’s future or their own future rests on the outcome. But that is not what happens. In extensive studies of teams at professional service firms, Professor Gardner saw the same pattern repeat itself: Teams become increasingly caught up with the risks of failure, rather than with 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. This would be analogous to a team of physicians ignoring the expertise of the best surgeon in the group and deferring to another doctor who is not a specialist in the field but he or she is senior on the staff.

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.

The effects of pressure show up not just in our marriages and work; they also influence the choices we make, at all ages.

Vinay Mayar was the 2010 valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School, widely regarded as the best of the nine elite New York City public high schools that select students based on a highly competitive Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). The school is a regular feeder to the most prestigious colleges and universities in America.

In his valedictorian commencement speech, Mayar, who now attends MIT, talked about the pressure at school. He referred to his classmates as “a volatile mix of strong-minded people armed in opposition against one other.” He listed what his friends said epitomized the Stuyvesant experience: “copying homework in the hallway while walking to class”; “sneaking in and out of school during free periods”; and “widespread Facebook cheating.” Only a few months earlier, Stuyvesant had been the scene of one of the most notorious acts of cheating to take place at a high school; it involved more than one hundred “excellent” students in a ring of deception. But Stuyvesant is not alone. Cheating scandals are hardly rare at elite, pressure-cooker high schools and colleges.

Just months from graduation from Leland High School, an acclaimed public school in San Jose, California, nine seniors were accused of taking part in a cheating ring. One student was said to have broken into at least two classrooms to steal test information before winter exams. A top-notch junior from Panther Creek High School in Cary, North Carolina, was busted for distributing a test to four classmates. Some twenty students from Great Neck, Roslyn, and other Long Island Gold Coast towns were arrested in an SAT cheating ring. In 2012, more than a hundred students were caught cheating in the same Harvard class in US Government.

Why do smart kids cheat? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. They are bright enough to get ahead honestly. We now understand enough about brain science to lay some of the blame on biology. Current research shows that the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control (measured in the lateral prefrontal cortex) may not completely develop until early adulthood, while the parts that boost sensation-seeking (the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) start growing just after puberty begins. Teenagers may cheat (or do drugs or drive too fast) partly because their sense of the thrill outweighs their sense of the risk.

The phenomenon is magnified when peers—friends—are present, which may help explain why teens often cheat in groups. A 2010 Temple University study found that when playing a driving video game, teenagers were more likely to take big risks and even crash when their friends were watching than they were when playing the game alone.

But a more plausible explanation put forth by educators and psychologists (and Vinay Mayar, the Stuyvesant valedictorian) is that cheating is caused by pressure. Sally Rubenstone, a Massachusetts-based senior advisor with College Confidential, puts it this way: “The pressure these kids feel to do well on the tests makes kids feel cheating is necessary.” Gabe Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, concurs: “With intensity to do well on tests comes pressure to cheat.”

Every day, kids are susceptible to peer pressure, which often makes our children engage in activities that later come back to haunt them. Drug use is one, bullying another. One can also add irresponsible adolescent sexual activity, and the most tragic consequence of teen pressure: suicide. The message is clear: Our kids might be smart, but pressure can cause them to use bad judgment and do foolish things.

Most of us think of pressure as situation-specific: the bottom of the ninth, taking the SATs, or giving a presentation in front of management. Yet the reality is that pressure is a daily force that infiltrates our everyday activities and builds up to the moment when everything is on the line.

Nancy Medoff, a senior director of Global Sales for Marriott International, describes what we mean. She calls it The Challenge:

“Technology increases the expectation that we need to be on 24/7, everyone expects a response NOW, and we are all moving at the speed of light. This creates a constant feeling that I am falling behind. Then there are ‘pressure spikes’ where something new gets added to your plate. For example, this year Marriott added a well-known Caribbean resort to its Autograph collection. It’s an amazing property, so almost overnight, customers were calling wanting to know more about it, availability for groups—and we need to be the experts and handle the new workload on top of what we are already doing.

“When the pressure spikes like this, I start feeling like I’m not getting enough done and I feel overwhelmed. If I am not managing the pressure, then I start responding to e-mails right away, being more reactive, and I can have an impact on people I don’t want to have. It affects my leadership and the performance of my team.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1

1 The Power of Pressure 13

2 The Stress of Pressure 33

3 The Nature of Pressure 45

4 The Anatomy of Choking 56

5 How Pressure Affects Our Thinking 71

6 Pressure Traps 80

7 The Third Variable 96

Part 2

Pressure Solutions 109

Part 3

Building Your COTE of Armor 155

COTE of Armor's Origin 158

Confidence 160

Optimism 196

Tenacity 223

Enthusiasm 248

Appendix A 275

Appendix B 280

Acknowledgments 283

Endnotes 289

Bibliography 295

Index 302

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