“I Perform Better Under Pressure” is a Lie

Any employees who say they churn out better work under pressure are lying — but they may not realize it.

In college, my roommate Rachel procrastinated for a month on a paper about 1700s British history. The night before it was due, she drank the Boston Tea Party’s worth of caffeinated tea and click-clacked it out in a few hours. The next day she handed it in, and, like most of us naively do, claimed she would never wait until the night before again.

A week later, her professor asked to talk to her about her paper. She was convinced he was going to admonish her for turning in such an atrocity. Instead, he asked if he could pass it around as an example of the perfect paper.

Note that Rachel is now a newspaper reporter, one of the Society for Human Resource Management’s top 10 stressful jobs of 2015,who habitually writes on tight deadlines. It’s in her DNA to work in environments where everyone needs everything yesterday. Most employees aren’t like her, however, even though most of them want to be.

Research completed by JP Pawliw-Fry and Hendrie Weisinger, authors of “Performing Under Pressure,” found 67 percent of people believe they perform better under pressure. But as Pawliw-Fry told me, that’s a dangerous perception that’s hurting the way employees work and the way bosses lead.

JP Pawliw-Fry
JP Pawliw-Fry, co-author of "Performing Under Pressure"

It all relates to psychology — specifically, how our minds trick us.

“When you have a deadline, it will get you off your butt and past procrastination,” Pawliw-Fry said. “You have this perception that you’re doing work. But there’s a very big difference between getting stuff done and getting good, creative work done.”

One of the studies in his book looks at how pressure affects creativity. Groups that completed a creativity-based project with a minimal amount of time said they were high-performing when evaluating their daily performance—and yet their final projects never received funding or recognition compared with those completed in more time.

Solving this self-deception issue isn’t a matter of extending deadlines, however, and this is where learning leaders come in. “People don’t do better when pressure is on, but they have tools to diminish pressure’s effect on them,” Pawliw-Fry said. “Michael Jordan didn’t do better in those (pressure-filled) situations. He was just effected less by pressure.”

Pawliw-Fry said these tools lie in the emotional parts of the brain. The right emotional intelligence training can help put together what he and his co-author call in the book a “Cote of Armor”:

  • Confidence: Take responsibility for actions and be open to criticism to learn where performance can be improved.
  • Optimism: Stop focusing on everything that could go wrong — it will only detract from doing the job right.
  • Tenacity: Don’t settle for a job OK-done. Be persistent.
  • Enthusiasm: Psychologically, enthusiasm is a state of heightened arousal that gets hearts beating faster and minds more focused.

So when Rachel wrote that paper, was she donning such a “cote”? By 1:30 a.m., her enthusiasm was probably a little threadbare, and in the morning light, she declared it the worst paper she had ever written — not a great sign of optimism. But the tenacity was there, and so was the confidence that even though she had put herself in this situation, she could get herself out.

That’s only two elements of the “cote.” Imagine what your employees could accomplish with all four.