You hear a lot of people saying that someone works well under pressure, or companies posting job descriptions that include the requirement that applicants work well under pressure.
The truth is that nobody works well under pressure. Period.
Someone may work better than a random sampling of people when put under pressure, but that’s not the same thing.
What most people consider to be “working well under pressure” generally comes down to three things – training, emotional detachment, and luck.
It’s a common saying in the social circles of people who operate in high pressure situations (think special forces, EMT’s, etc) that “People don’t rise to the occasion. They fall to the level of their training.”
Pressure doesn’t bring out “the best” in you. It shows what you’ve been learning while you weren’t under pressure. It’s why you have so much repetition in training for the military or in martial arts. If you do it often enough, it’s more likely to become “second nature” – sometimes to the point of being ingrained as a spinal cord level reflex.
That’s not to say that you will do it nearly as well under pressure as you do when you’re training, but that training makes it more likely that you’ll at least be able to do it at all.
(For those of you who think otherwise, the United States military makes manuals for pretty much everything that you might have to do in the field – partially because they know how likely it is that people in the field will freeze up or forget their training).
There are a couple of kinds of emotional detachment that I’d like to cover here.
The first is a form of emotional detachment where you legitimately don’t really care about the person or situation that’s causing the pressure. It’s caused by a lack of empathy and usually isn’t healthy for either you or the people around you.
That’s not to say that you have to care viscerally about every situation that you land in, but if you don’t care about them at all, that’s generally a really bad sign.
The other form of emotional detachment is an active choice (and often involves training to get to that point – imagine that).
It’s the ability to take a breath, step back emotionally from something you would otherwise be very invested in, and focus on now. You take the short-term action of actively ignoring the past, focus on the space right in front of you, and dedicate yourself to getting through the next five minutes because the only thing that exists at this point is right now. And then you keep doing that until you’re out of the crisis situation.
That works for very short-term situations if you can pull it off. For longer term situations, you set a goal to reach and then reassess (I’m going to keep going for 3 miles, then I’ll eat. After you eat, you have the energy to keep going and you set your next, fairly short-term goal. Lather, rinse, repeat).
Afterward, you give yourself the time and space that you need in order to fall apart and process everything that happened. It’s a sort of short-term loan that often comes with heavy interest. I speak from experience.
The last item in the list is both the most overlooked as well as usually one of the most important.
Luck plays an outsized role in what we do on a regular basis, but it plays an even larger role in high stress or crisis situations.
You can only control your own actions, and if something happens that doesn’t line up with what you’ve done, the entire thing can come crashing down.
During normal situations, you can more easily come up with a decent response to things not going your way, but during a high-pressure situation, it’s much much more difficult for you to respond to the unexpected.
You cannot plan for the unexpected. You can only prepare to be surprised.
In a high pressure situation, your ability to effectively cope with surprises is reduced drastically. A lot of the people who get praised for “doing so well” under pressure got incredibly lucky. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
What should we do instead?
Given that nobody works well under pressure, what should we do to make sure people do work well?
The answer to that is fairly straightforward (though sometimes difficult to actually accomplish) – you work to take away as much of the pressure as is reasonably possible.
If you’re leading a team, provide them the cover and psychological safety that they need to do good work. Reassure them that mistakes will happen and that they aren’t going to be taken to task for things beyond their control.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an incredibly difficult thing to actually do because it requires not only that you reassure your team, but that you push back against the people above and to the sides of you in order to make it more than lip service. It is, however, a sign of real leadership.
I know that some people are going to say “that’s great for production going down, but what about ‘real’ high-pressure situations?”
The thing is that it’s true of both the office and in crisis situations where lives may be at risk.
One of the first things you need to do in order to get a group of people out of a life or death situation is to calm them down because panicked people are prone to make even more mistakes (and that’s if they don’t completely freeze up).
You get their attention, calmly convince them that everything will be okay, and then focus on getting them out in one piece (you often have to reiterate that things will be okay during the process of getting them out of the situation). It’s a lot more difficult than that makes it sound, but that’s what it boils down to and the reason for that is that the stress/trauma response of most people tends to follow a few patterns no matter what causes the stress.
That’s not to minimize the stress caused by life or death situations – just to point out that, no matter the source of stress, people tend to respond similarly. That’s also something I can speak from experience on.
And if you don’t believe my experience, how about former FBI hostage negotiator, Chriss Voss? You’ll find references to similar tactics (as well as the fact that these responses occur in situations no matter what their cause) in his book Never Split the Difference and in a number of his talks.
Whether it’s in the office, in a medical emergency, or other crisis situation, people don’t work well under pressure. Do what you can to lower the stress levels and give them the tools they need to actually succeed.