Content Under Pressure

Today's employees often feel like they work in a pressure cooker that is ready to explode at any given moment. Some organizations are implementing training programs to help their employees better manage that pressure and improve their performance in the process.

Game 7 of the World Series. Home team is down by one run, with a runner on third. Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Two strikes. A bead of sweat trickles down the batter’s cheek. He tightens his grip on the bat and shifts his stance slightly. His eyes narrow. Some sixty feet away, the pitcher stares in, then winds up, leg kicking high. His arm whips back and then forward, releasing the ball at 100 miles per hour. The batter swings and…

Talk about a high-pressure situation. Athletes in sports from baseball and football to figure skating and gymnastics spend lifetimes training to perform under just such nail-biting conditions. But, as most of us can attest, high-pressure situations aren’t only found in sports arenas—they crop up on a daily basis in most people’s work and personal lives. And while companies are willing to invest in leadership development programs and compliance training and onboarding, they aren’t necessarily interested in shelling out bucks for a pressure management training program—or even admitting that their employees are under pressure. In fact, many companies are firm believers in using pressure to push employees to “rise to the occasion.” So an inability to handle pressure often is perceived as individual weakness rather than a human nature norm.

But that is starting to change, say Hendrie (Hank) Weisinger, Ph.D., and JP Pawliw-Fry, co-authors of the recently published book, “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most” (visit learning-manage-pressure to read an excerpt). “We have moved the concept into the corporate world in the context of pressure management training,” says Weisinger, who is trained in clinical, counseling, and organizational psychology, “which involves different pressure competencies such as increasing your awareness of how you handle pressure, analyzing your pressure moments, and learning and implementing long-term pressure management strategies.”

Before an organization can even think about embarking on a pressure management training program, it first must understand what pressure management is. Weisinger coined the term, “pressure management,” defining it as “the science and art of developing and applying evidence-based strategies and interventions that minimize the counterproductive emotions, feelings, and thoughts an individual experiences in situations when he or she has something at stake and the outcome is determined by one’s performance. These situations are referred to as pressure moments.”

Weisinger explains that the purpose of pressure management is to enable an individual to perform to his or her capability in a pressure moment, and feel less daily pressure. “Pressure management does not improve the ‘skill’ per se,” Weisinger stresses. For example, pressure management for a student does not increase the student’s vocabulary, but it does make it easier for him or her to learn, and on test day, use his or her cognitive skills to the fullest. “In a sense,” Weisinger says, “pressure management/ pressure coaching is about helping you not do worse than your best—which, in fact, might not be good enough, but at least gives you a chance.”

Craig Sigl runs the Mental Toughness Academy in Seattle and works extensively with young athletes. Athletes almost always begin playing their sport for the sheer joy, fun, and pleasure of playing. “At some point,” he says, “they unconsciously change their reason for playing to some form of ‘to get to the next level of performance,’ which is a fear generator. I help them switch back to playing for, and focusing on, ‘all the things they love about the game,’ which is an offshoot of ‘playing in the present’ but much more powerful emotionally.”

This mindset change also could be applied to an employee who loved her job but then became too focused on moving up the ladder and suddenly felt crushed by that pressure to get to the next level and couldn’t focus on her current position.

Dr. Kevin Elko, a sports psychologist on retainer with the University of Alabama and FSU, points to research by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth that found the No. 1 predictor of success isn’t scores, it’s “grit”— defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. “The key,” he believes, “is putting in place mechanisms—that you can use and repeat—to keep you moving forward. That’s why it’s necessary to change the internal culture. Don’t teach to test. Rather, create a culture that says we aren’t just going to ask you to achieve. We’re going to help you have grit.”

Many people confuse pressure with stress, notes Pawliw-Fry, an international performance coach and advisor to Olympic athletes and business executives, and president of the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP). “Pressure moments are stressful moments in which the consequences or results matter. While both pressure and stress can feel stressful (physically, emotionally), the difference lies in the importance of the outcome,” he explains. “Stressful moments do not matter to the same degree to your success or survival as pressure moments.” For example, having to manage too much to do with too little time such as attending numerous meetings, giving feedback on a proj ect, meeting deadlines, working with a new boss while also making sure you get to the school on time to get Jonny or Sallie to their after-school activity can all feel stressful. But if you don’t deliver the exact response required, you will not necessarily face a significant consequence to your success or survival.

However, pressure moments differ because they have a material impact on your success and survival. “Failure to perform a successful presentation to a venture capital firm or failure to attain a certain score on an SAT or not being able to get a talented team to function well on an organization’s mission-critical proj – ect means there is a good chance that there will be a material impact to the success or survival of the company or your career or your school choice,” Pawliw-Fry says. “In these situations, you have to deliver the specific goods. Being relaxed helps in both a stressful moment and a pressure moment, but in a pressure moment, you still have to throw the touchdown.”

So it starts by knowing the difference between the two and reacting proportionally to what you face. A quick distinguisher is to ask yourself, “Am I feeling overwhelmed or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?” If your answer is the former—a feeling of being overwhelmed, too many demands and not enough resources—you are stressed. If you are in a situation in which you feel you have to deliver the goods, that’s pressure.

To manage stress, Pawliw-Fry says, you can do a number of things: take a day off, exercise, get a good night’s sleep, etc. However, doing these things might not help you deliver the required response that will make you successful in a pressure moment or situation.

For this, he says, you need to use strategies that will help you think, make decisions, retrieve memory, and connect more effectively in a difficult moment. For that, you might want to use a different skill such as reframing a situation as a challenge vs. a crisis. “This affects your noradrenaline/adrenaline ratio, smooth muscle constriction vs. dilation with impact on blood and oxygen getting to your muscles and your brain,” Pawliw-Fry says. “It means you are in a better position to use your cognitive resources: think straight, be decisive, and connect more effectively—all of which will help you deliver more successfully in the moment.”

Weisinger has identified six main principles that the practice of pressure management is built upon:

1. Pressure experience is inherently distressful. All pressure moments by definition have a degree of uncertainty and importance attached to the outcome. Uncertainty translates into anxiety, an emotion/feeling that hundreds of studies confirm works against effective performance. Pressure management makes the pressure experience less distressful so it is easier to perform effectively.

2. Pressure causes a disturbance in our human performance system. Our human performance system is the interaction of our thoughts, physical arousal, and behavior/psychomotor response. When an individual fails to perform to his or her capability or chokes in a pressure moment, one—if not all— of these components is malfunctioning. Pressure management increases the individual’s awareness to how pressure impacts his or her human performance system before, during, and after pressure moments, and how to use this awareness as a cue that it’s time to use pressure management skills.

3. Pressure occurs when an individual experiences one or more of the following five pressure factors:

  • Demand to succeed
  • Uncertainty of outcome
  • Desire for positive outcome and/or aversion to negative outcome
  • Perceived responsibility for results
  • Loss or gain of consequences

These factors can be thought of as a pressure system, each factor influencing the other. Pressure management teaches individuals how to regulate each factor and how to use each factor to manage the others.

4. Pressure experience can be measured by the subjective intensity of the five pressure factors. A pressure management analysis would require the individual to rate each factor from 1-10 on factor intensity and yield their SPII score—the individual’s subjective pressure intensity index or the degree to which the individual feels pressure in a given situation, such as a presentation to clients or taking a test. A pressure analysis, essential to pressure management, increases the individual’s awareness to which factor he or she needs to manage more effectively, and at the same time, provides insights as to why and how he or she experiences pressure.

5. Regulating, decreasing, or redirecting the five pressure factors reduces the SPII. The mechanisms for managing the pressure factors are the individual’s natural tools—thoughts, physical arousal, psychomotor responses (behavior), and voice. Pressure management teaches individuals specific and empirically tested methods that enable them to use their natural tools to reduce negative effects of pressure.

6. There are two chief ways to diminish the SPII:
Pressure solutions and COTE of Armor.
Pressure solutions are evidence-based strategies an individual applies minutes before or during a pressure moment such as an interview, audition, test, presentation, difficult conversation, or first date. Pressure solutions are effective because they minimize distressful feelings such as anxiety, fear, or embarrassment that frequently are associated with the pressure experience; prevent focus on distracting thoughts; keep physical arousal at a taskappropriate level; and focus on what helps the individual. There are at least 30 such evidence-based strategies for pressure management programs to build upon.

The COTE of Armor is an acronym for the long-term goal of pressure management: instilling people with Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm.

Like all training programs, a successful pressure management training program must begin with support from senior staff. “This goes beyond getting the nod to start a program or offer a class,” Weisinger emphasizes. “It means senior staff needs to model pressure management skills and to be engaged in the same training that their staff would undergo. It also means organizations need to create a culture that sees pressure management as a positive and as a tool to enhance productivity from many perspectives.”

When designing a pressure management training program, Weisinger recommends including a core experience —a seminar/workshop in which participants are exposed to content and activities such as short pressure management exercises that stimulate pressure. For example, have participants perform under a time deadline, perform a task in front of an “audience,” compete with each other, or be responsible for winning or losing a reward. An infrastructure also should be created to sustain learning application.

Weisinger advocates basing the core content on three general learning objectives:

  1. Increase awareness about the nature of pressure, how it differs from stress, how it downgrades our skills and performance and how it impacts aspects of employees’ professional and personal lives such as morals, parenting, and marriage.
  2. Learn pressure management solutions that enable employees to perform to their capability in pressure moments they encounter.
  3. Learn how to instill the attributes that enable one to operate with confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm, natural “tools” for managing pressure. This means that participants are presented with specific activities that build these attributes—a blueprint. A Pressure Assessment & Inventory is a tool Weisinger created that provides users with important insights into how and why they experience pressure as they do, as well as helping them formulate a plan for how best to deal with their pressure moments and reduce their daily feelings of pressure.

Weisinger recommends a three-day training program but realizes that most organizations are not willing to allot that amount of time. A good solution, he says, is to customize the content to the “pressure needs” of your target group. For example, a group of financial advisors would be more interested in handling the pressure of a presentation to high-net clients or meeting a quota, whereas senior executives might want to know how to handle the pressure of making difficult decisions that will affect their company, employees, and future. The trainer then can choose the content and activities that will best serve the needs of the group.

Another solution is to break up the delivery into a series of small presentations with “pressure homework assignments” between classes, Weisinger says. “This gives participants time to reflect, discuss, and apply the content they are learning and also provides more time for them to integrate the information and a chance to ask questions that they may not think of in a one- or three-day session.

After the training is completed, Weisinger suggests a variety of what he calls “pressure management interventions”:

  • Schedule de-pressurize meetings: Twice a month, the staff has a short meeting to share the feelings of pressure they experience and learn from each other how to handle them.
  • Hold pathway meetings: These are short meetings designed to problem solve via generating “pathways” that help get around obstacles and achieve goals. This can foster hope and optimism, both pressure reducers.
  • Share what works: Share success stories of how different employees handled pressure moments. Do this through the company newsletter or other internal publications/communications.
  • Continually reiterate the importance of pressure management by offering pressure management training opportunities.
  • Create a group of pressure management coaches: This is where employee assistance programs (EAPs) can make an impact in pressure management, Weisinger says.
  • Develop engaging online follow-up activities: These can include surveys with “ how would you handle… ? ”-type of questions.

The Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) began working with a major Canadian bank’s technical and operations organization over a three-year period in which more than 500 leaders participated in a comprehensive pressure curriculum program that focused mainly on emotions and thinking under pressure. It included a two-day in-class training program, multirater assessment, e-learning, one-on-one coaching for senior leaders, and extended learning sessions for middle-level leaders. Pawliw-Fry says that while anecdotal feedback from the program has been positive (there is a waiting list of people who want to attend the program), the measurement of success was illustrated by the bank’s own internal metrics.

During the three-year period that IHHP’s program was delivered at the bank, Pawliw-Fry says the following Tech & Ops internal measurements increased statistically significantly:

  • Employee engagement index
  • Learning and development index
  • People manager index

The bank attributed this to the comprehensive learning its team went through during the three years. Other research conducted on this program found:

  • When faced with challenging situations, 29 percent of the respondents reported that they used the tools learned in the program often or very often before the coaching program. After the coaching portion of the program, 79 percent said they use the tools often and very often when faced with challenging situations.
  • Prior to the coaching program, 32 percent of respondents indicated that the learning had a significant impact on their lives. After the coaching, 74 percent reported that the learning was having a significant positive effect on their lives—both personally and professionally.
  • Some 98 percent of the participants agreed that the coaching program met their expectations. In terms of personal development, 94 percent strongly agreed that the coaching sessions had helped them to improve, while 90 percent agreed that the coaching had helped their leadership skills.

From Dr. Hendrie (Hank) Weisinger:

  • Be clear on why you want a pressure management program, what you want it to accomplish, how it might have to be modified across different segments of the company, how it will be delivered, how it will be evaluated, what resources are available, and all other issues the team identifies.
  • Assess the pressure needs of the company. For example, many people will want pressure management so they can do their best in pressure moments— when they give a presentation, make a sales call, have a difficult conversation. Others will have a different pressure need— to reduce their daily feelings of pressure. Assessing the pressure needs will provide direction as to how your pressure management training needs to be structured in terms of content and activities.
  • Become highly educated on the topic so you can effectively navigate the creation of the program.
  • Spend a lot of time evaluating the quality of the resources you are going to use and the content to be included. The more educated you are on the subject, the better job you will do implementing this point.

From Dr. Kevin Elko:

  • Present the principles and the process and then keep changing the delivery modality. You need to convey the same information in different ways. Teach and reteach.
  • Follow up with teams electronically. Send four-minute podcasts weekly on phones or tablets, for example.
  • Then check to see where you are and measure success. Metrics to look at include daily feelings of pressure, performance, morale, and absenteeism.

Be Prepared

By Stephanie Palmer, Author, “Good in a Room”

When you’re feeling a lot of pressure, when you’re nervous even to the point where you feel uncomfortable, that feeling may be trying to tell you something: Perhaps you’re not as prepared as you need to be.

That can be tough to hear. You may have prepared a great deal and you’re still feeling pressure because so much is riding on your performance. But you may not have prepared correctly.

Here are some tips to try when you are preparing for a big meeting or presentation, for example:

1. Memorize anything you need to pitch. This could be a presentation or answers to likely questions (or both).

2. Record yourself pitching on video. I know, I know. We all hate how we look and sound, but this is essential. Watching yourself on video helps you make your pitch more conversational and correct issues of pacing and tone.

3. Take a practice meeting. Find friends who can emulate the decision-maker to whom you’ll be pitching and try to create the situation you’ll be in. For example, when I had to do a big speech at Google, I invited a bunch of programmers and engineers to my house and did my speech for them. Then I rewrote the speech, invited more programmers and engineers the next week, and did the speech AGAIN.

Overall, my point is this: When you feel pressure (a.k.a., “fear”), it’s usually for a good reason. It means you may need to prepare a little more. In addition to deep breathing, visualization, and meditation (all good things), create the situation where you need to perform and practice performing. The truth is that nothing you do to relieve pressure may reduce your fear as much as you’d like, but the right kind of practice will dramatically improve your performance—and that’s what really matters.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.