The Secret to How People Work Well Under Pressure

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

You’re up against a lot at work — environmental factors are likely killing your productivity, your more socially savvy coworkers could be getting promotions over you, and you may even be tempted to cheat your way to the top. It’s a lot of pressure, and one of the ways that we can truly get a glimpse at our character is by our actions and attitudes in the face of that pressure.

Most career paths come with their stresses, but others are particularly well-known for being high-pressure gigs — think Wall Street finance jobs, management positions, and pretty much anything involving customer service. The people who typically succeed at those positions, however, are the ones who can best handle stress and pressure. An ability to remain cool and confident under pressure is one trait that is shared among many of the world’s business and political leaders, as well as many of history’s most famous and influential names.

The trick is, of course, developing the ability to handle pressure. So, how do you do it?

Essentially, handling pressure comes down to meshing the ability to assess one’s surroundings in a thought-out and logical manner with composed behavior.

For example, if you’re working in a kitchen and there’s a grease fire at one of the cooking stations, what do you do? Do you panic, and dump a bucket of water on the fire? Or can you think on your feet, walk briskly to the fire extinguisher, and use it to dispose of the problem?

Or put yourself in another position. If you’re in a customer service position and have a line of angry, screaming customers all looking to make you the target of their ire, do you run away, start crying, or take control of the situation?

You can guess which type of person hiring managers are going to want to put out on the floor, and it’s not the guy who’s going to run away or start with the waterworks. But overall, the real key to handling stress and high-pressure situations is as simple as this: never stand still.

To reiterate, the best thing you can do in high-stress, high-pressure situations is to keep moving. Simply stay on your feet, and engage with the crisis around you. Fear can be paralyzing — but as previously mentioned, it’s the ability to push through that paralysis, logically take stock of what’s going on, and grab a hold on the situation that makes a true leader.

We’ve written before about how, in many professional settings, emotion can actually be your biggest weakness. This rings true in the face of stress and pressure — if you let your emotions (fear, anger, etc.) take the wheel, you’re going to go careening off a cliff.

Though you will want to keep your emotions in check, focusing all of your energy on staying calm could backfire as well. According to Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School, who has done a good deal of research into the best way to handle stress and pressure in a variety of situations, staying upbeat, yet focused, is the ideal way to tackle hairy situations.

“People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective,” she said, according to a recent article from Inc. “When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.”

Clearly, handling pressure is one of those ‘simple, yet complicated’ abilities. To really boil it down, and work on your own abilities to handle stress, simply remembering to not freeze up, and to control your emotions in the face of screaming customers or grease fires is a great place to start. But it’s going to take balance — you don’t want to calm yourself down to the point that your mind is flooded with the worst possible outcomes.

Handling pressure is a learned skill, and one that is very valuable. It’s something that separates the ‘men from the boys’, and can get you a long way if you can treat the ability like a muscle, and exercise it. When the time comes to put it to use, you’ll be glad you did.

Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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