I was forced to learn about pressure during a night combat mission in Desert Storm while being the Captain of a KC-135, the military version of the Boeing 707 four engine jet. We were loaded to maximum weight when both engines on my left wing were blown completely off the airplane. The plane suddenly went totally out of control. It was going down fast, crashing. Miraculously I was able to regain control of the plane and land safely with the help of an amazing 3 man crew. But I’ll never forget my crewmember asking me: “Are we going to have to bail out?”
From this experience I learned these 7 mistakes people make under pressure:
1. Don’t put yourself into a known position of pressure.
Look ahead, when you have that important presentation, get to the presentation room early. Survey the room, check out the audio visuals, and if something is amiss you have time to fix it.
Leave early for an important client or customer meeting so that you can get stuck in traffic and still be on time. Traffic jams happen. We all know which route is most susceptible to a traffic problem. When you are going to take that route, leave early.
Don’t schedule meetings too close together. How many times have you sat in a meeting that is running over and you are looking at your watch feeling your blood pressure rise because you know you are going to be late to your next meeting. So what happens? You quit listening to the meeting you are in and then you are late to your next meeting. Remember, YOU put yourself in this position. Don’t do that.
2. Preparation is the key to handling pressure.
Experience has shown us the unexpected happens. If you have thought about it ahead of time then the unexpected is not unexpected. In the pilot/flight crew world we consistently practice for the day when something goes wrong, the day you lose an engine, the day you lose hydraulic pressure so that when that day happens you are prepared. This makes it less stressful and allows you to be able to concentrate on the task at hand.
In business we tend to allow ourselves to think we are way too busy to stop and think about alternatives, but if you look at the people who are the most successful, they are the ones prepared for the unexpected – – Join that Group!!
3. Don’t be afraid to make a decision under pressure.
The first day of United States Air Force pilot training we were taught an important aspect of decision making under pressure that I use constantly in business and my personal life. If you are rolling down the runway in a multi- engine airplane and you lose an engine, unless you do something incredibly stupid you can either take off or abort. Thinking about it is going to kill you.
The moral of that story is under pressure you typically have alternatives. Pick one, and don’t worry about it. What will increase the pressure is not making a decision.
When under pressure it is very easy to fear making a decision because you are afraid to make the wrong decision. Trust yourself. If you have prepared, then you will make a good decision. You don’t have to make a perfect decision; you just have to make a good decision.
4. Address pressure when it happens. Ignore the immaterial.
When you are under pressure it is very easy to let your mind wander onto something else that doesn’t have anything to do with the situation at hand. Don’t let that happen. Focus on the task at hand, clear out all the extraneous thoughts from your mind, ignore the immaterial, and focus on what you need to do to address the pressure you are under.
Have you ever been in a meeting where you are going over something tough and the conversation turns to something that has nothing to do with the task at hand? This increases the pressure of the meeting. Be the one to take the meeting back to the tough questions. Putting off pressure does not alleviate it; it will intensify the pressure.
5. Be a great teammate under pressure.
When you see that look of pressure on the face of one of your teammates- help them. Don’t be the one that runs the other way. When you help your teammate under pressure it will set the precedent for them to help you.
The old saying goes, “You are only as good as your weakest link.” When a teammate cannot function properly your team has a broken link. The broken link will increase the pressure on the rest of your team. People on the team will be called upon to do multiple jobs. If you address the pressure quickly you will alleviate the pressure on your team, you will become known as a great teammate – the teammate everybody wants to have.
6. Be confident under pressure.
If you have done your homework, you have prepared, you have learned to focus on the right thing at the right time in the right order, and you have learned to ignore the immaterial you have set yourself up. Now just believe in your ability under pressure. The dictionary says self-confidence is belief in one’s own ability, power, or judgment. I say self-confidence is a state of mind where you think of a situation in terms of I can, I will, I expect, and I did it.
When our society looks at professional athletes we expect them to perform in the crucial situation in the game because “they get paid to do that.” When you talk to professional athletes, and I have, they expect to perform in the crucial situation in the game because they have prepared and they are confident in their abilities.
7. Expect to be put under pressure.
People try to avoid pressure which is a normal human flight or fight response. When it does happen don’t let it crush you. Expect it, don’t let it shock you and then deal with it. Just take a deep breath then handle it. Or, as the emergency procedures manual in the flying business says: “Stop, Think, Collect Your Wits.”
© Lt. Colonel Kevin Sweeney All rights reserved.