In The Face Of A Uncertainty

How to deal with Pressure AT Work

Photo by thomas marban on Unsplash

Photo by thomas marban on Unsplash

When I was working as a Safety Engineer at a refinery, I had to meet with the site leadership team every quarter to give a presentation. I remember feeling anxious, queasy, and petrified every time I had to do it.

Why did I feel this unnecessary pressure at work?

Pressure is directly related to our performance (article). No one wants to perform poorly and squander his or her reputation. 

Most of us feel pressure when we value others’ opinions over our own and when our performance is measured against someone else’s standards.

I discuss this idea in more detail in my book The Experience Manifesto.

Even though outcomes of our performance cannot be controlled, we can manage the pressure and anxiety related to our performance.

Performance related pressure can be mitigated by various means like deliberate practice, dress rehearsals, and role-play exercises.

If took me 3 or 4 tries before I no longer felt the pressure to perform at the refinery. Access to pressure management tools helped me navigate the uncertainties of my performance.

Below are a few tools that have worked well for me and details on how to use them effectively.

 

DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Practice with intention of improving a component of your performance. 

Create a scenario that will allow you to rehearse your performance.

Recruit friends or coworkers if you need an audience or team for your scenario.

Identify the fear. I define fear as the key indicators that directly influences performance.

Eliminate the fear. 

You can eliminate fears through:

  • Performance rehearsals
  • Scenario walkthroughs

Manage fears that you cannot eliminate.

For example:

  • I test the technology I am going to use ahead of time.
  • I try to visit the rooms where I am going to present.
  • I confirm the type of lighting I need and make changes if needed.
  • I eat something to manage my hunger.
  • I anticipate questions based on my rehearsals.

Practice scenarios that may catch you by surprise. 

For example:

  • I practice my talk without technology in case of a digital malfunction. 
  • I simulate many different scenarios dozens of times. 
  • I plan for anything that could go wrong will go wrong.

 

THE POWER OF NEGATIVE

Picture yourself failing.

This is an idea that goes against much of what you hear in the self-improvement space, but it’s a powerful tool.  

One way to deal with pressure is to ask yourself what is the worst that could happen.

This idea actually comes from classic stoic philosophy.  

Marcus Aurelius, in his classic Meditations, states, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.” 

This might sound like a horrible day, but for the famous roman emperor, it was a reminder that life is not perfect.  

He goes on to say that none of these things can injure him.  

By preparing for the worst, he is ready for it in his day.

When facing a pressure-filled task, ask yourself what the worst case scenario would be.  

Write down the worst case scenarios. 

How bad is it compared to other worst case scenarios you have experienced?

Visualize and prepare for negative consequences, you will be more familiar with them if they should arise.  

NASA employs a variation of this as well.  

Chris Hadfield, an astronaut who wrote An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, says that when they were training for missions, they would constantly ask themselves, 

“What could kill me next?”  

By asking that question over and over, they learned to recognize all of the potential dangers of their mission, and more important, figure out how to deal with them.

The power of negative visualization is not for everyone. 

The idea that anything and everything that could go wrong, will do wrong, is sometimes demoralizing.

If you do not have practice with negative visulization, we recommend you start small with something of remedial consequence. 

Note: it is very important that this process is not adopted if you are trying to come up with ideas to manage pressure. 

If you are brainstorming ideas, thinking about the worst case scenario can be limiting.

 

LONG TERM THINKING

Pressure has a short shelf-life, so changing the temporal perspective can offer lasting effects.

For example: 

When I am under pressure, I follow these steps:

I stop what I am doing.

I ask myself: a year from today, will the thing I am worrying about matter?

If the answer is no, then I know this is self-induced pressure that doesn’t require the energy or attention I am giving it.  

If the answer is yes, then I use the pressure to practice deliberately and improve my performance. 

By asking ourselves this simple question, we are reminding ourselves of the long-term picture, the knowledge of what is really important.  

A task or deadline which may feel like life-or-death now is not likely to even matter in the future.

By taking a long-term perspective, we can decrease the pressure we all too often put on ourselves.

 

FAKE IT

One final tip that I use when I feel pressure at work is Amy Cuddy’s recommendation on changing body posture. 

Her strategy:

Before attending a meeting, assume the superman pose.

Give yourself a sense of power and confidence. 

Do this if you want to boost your performance, or if you are feeling a little shaky or nervous about your performance. 

The power posture supposedly increases testosterone, decreases cortisol, and allows a person to feel dominant.

There is a significant amount of research that shows that attitudes often follow behavior.  

What that means is, if we behave in a certain way, it can actually change our attitude.  

Cuddy’s research is a part of that, but it is often used as a therapy as well.  

For example:

  • If you’re depressed and feeling down, the simple act of smiling can decrease the symptoms.  
  • If you’re feeling pressure at work, assume the posture and mannerisms of someone who is in control and confident of the outcome.  

You might be surprised what ends up happening.

Different people have different ways of faking it till they make it. 

For example:

  • I listen to music that I enjoy and dance in private before I give presentations.
  • I try to fish for my audience’s expectations ahead of time.
  • I like to rehearse my performance where the situation may be more stressful but the consequences aren’t as high. 
  • I try to prime my audience by engaging with them ahead of time and jumping into a conversation of their liking. 
  • If I am presenting in front of an audience or at a meeting, I try to share a funny and relevant story. 

If you are looking for tools to help manage pressure at work, please give the ones that we've discussed a try. I know I covered a few different options, so here is a summary of what we have discussed so far. 

 

Summary

STEP 1

Practice your performance.

Create a scenario to rehearse your performance. 

Recruit friends or coworkers to watch you perform.

Identify and manage fear. 

Practice scenarios that could catch you by surprise.

Simulate many different scenarios dozens of times. 

 

STEP 2

Begin the day like Marcus Aurelius by assuming the worst.

Write down the possible worst case scenarios about performance. 

Think about every single detail that could go wrong and rehearse it so you are able to plan a fix.

Compared what you write down to other worst case scenarios you have experienced.

 

STEP 3

Ask yourself: a year from today, will I remember this performance or will this performance affect me or my career on a personal level? 

Think long term.

Practice like the task or deadline will not even matter a year from now.  

 

STEP 4

Use Amy Cuddy’s recommendation on changing body posture.

Assumed the superman pose for two minutes or as Amy recommends it.

 

The key to success with these tools is figure out how well they work for us individually. The more time we spend afterwards reflecting on the effectiveness of these tools, the more likely we optimize our productivity. 

Here are some questions to get you started.

 

REFLECTION

Question set 1

Did you practice before you performed?

Did creating a scenario to rehearse your performance? How did it help?

Were you able to recruit friends or coworkers to watch your perform?

Did you identifying and managing fear? Did it help?

Did you practice scenarios that could catch you by surprise? What did that do?   

Did you simulate many different scenarios dozens of times? Was this a waste of time?

Question set 2

What worked and what didn’t work about begining each day like Marcus Aurelius?

What would you do differently?

Did you write down the worst case scenarios for the day?

Did you think about every single detail that could go wrong and rehearse it so you are able to plan a fix?

Did you compare what you wrote down to other worst case scenarios you have experienced? How did they compare?

Question set 3

Did the long term thinking exercise help?

Were you able to project your condition a year from today?   

How, if at all, did this type of long-term thinking help?

Were you able to practice like the task or deadline wouldn’t even matter a year from now? What did you do?

Question set 4

Did you employ Amy Cuddy’s recommendation on changing body posture to gain more confidence?

How did this influence the pressure you were feeling? 

Did you assume the superman pose before a meeting? 

How long did you do this for? Did this help?

 

General Reflection

Did negative visualization actually help? 

How often are you able to turn pressure into fuel?

Have the tools encouraged you to take on more pressure-filled experiences? 

Has embracing pressure helped you perform better? 

Keep the final version that delivers consistent results and requires the least amount of work. Identify what worked. Eliminate what didn’t. Consistently use what worked. Find new experiences to test the value and sustainability. Test the outcome to ensure the integrity of the process is preserved. 

“Actions express priorities.”

Mahatma Gandhi