How Well Are You Handling Pressure?

Home » Culture & Structure » How Well Are You Handling Pressure?

While these are clearly more stressful days for all of us, it’s especially true for leaders, especially those faced by crises – moments of intense pressure – where their responses can have enormous consequences for their organizations, customers, investors, employees, communities and themselves. Think of the pressure that Johnson and Johnsons’ leadership experienced when they learned that someone was tampering with Tylenol on retailers’ shelves. H. Weisinger (a psychologist and specialize in pressure management) and JP Pawliw-Fry (a performance coach and advisor to Olympic athletes and executives) provide valuable insights on how we can handle pressure better in their book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most.


While stress is free-floating anxiety that often increases over time, pressure occurs at a time and place – hence the expression “the pressure is on”. Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance. Think about the pressure on United Airlines pilot Chelsey Sullenberger when he had to land his damaged Airbus on the Hudson River and save his passengers’ lives. The attributes of pressure moments are importance, uncertainty, responsibility to others and feeling judged. While we’re experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, failure, embarrassment and stress during these moments, the issue is how do we respond?!


The authors conducted in depth research on thousands of subjects and discovered that the overwhelming majority of people do worse under pressure due to three factors in human performance: distractive physical arousal, competing thoughts and inappropriate behaviors. In a pressure moment, heart rate starts to zoom, thinking becomes rigid and distorted. With anxiety and fear arousal increasing, you lose control of your physical arousal, your thinking ability is disturbed (leading to incorrect interpretations of events making us overly confident or anxious) and capability to execute the behaviors you need. The belief that some people excel under pressure is a myth.


The authors offer several strategies and tactics to limit errors made under pressure. They include:

  • Befriend the moment – see it as a challenge or opportunity/fun
  • View it as one of many opportunities
  • Downsize the importance
  • Focus on the mission (which was what J&J’s leadership did)
  • Anticipate the “unexpected” as likely to happen
  • Distinguish between what you can control and cannot, and focus on the former
  • Affirm your self-worth – recognize how your experience, skills and positive qualities will help you
  • Recall a previous success you had; believe in yourself throughout the episode
  • Be present to your senses and what you are experiencing, to avoid careless errors
  • Practice experiencing pressure (through simulations);
  • Write out your concerns about the high pressure situation and/or share them with others
  • Use a favorite song or anchor (holistic word) to guide performance; engage in pre-activity routines
  • Put away self-consciousness; slow down your response; regulate your breathing; meditate

Finally, the authors offer 4 key qualities we should all use to stand up to the pressure. Their COTE of Armor includes: Confidence, Optimism, Tenancy and Enthusiasm.

All of this is food for thought – if you want to avoid high pressure moments and handle them well.
What are your experiences with handling pressure? Which of the recommended solutions have you found most effective? What other advice would you provide? Share with us.