Employees working under pressure tend to fall into ‘traps’ that reduce their productivity and creativity, and cause more mistakes to be made, according to a leadership and performance expert.

One of these common traps is to defer to the person with the highest status within the team when feeling pressured, but this is a mistake, says Dr JP Pawliw-Fry (pix), co-founder of the Institute for Health and Human Potential and author of Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most.

Employees do this to manage risk, “so they take the safer option”, but the person they refer to is often “not the person with the most expertise”, he said.

“The problem is they come up with more mediocre solutions to the problems that they’re trying to solve,” he added.

The answer is for managers to help employees recognise the signs of pressure and give them strategies to manage it more effectively.

“When [managers] do that it becomes a competitive advantage [for the organisation] because they engage people more effectively, they get more discretionary effort, they have better solutions from their teams, [and] they’re more creative or innovative.”

Pawliw-Fry says nobody performs better under pressure, as pressure diminishes creativity. “Many of us think, ‘Oh when I have a deadline… I’m most creative’, but actually you’re not.

“What happens is that you have a deadline, you start getting more active, there’s more activity and you get more done, but the problem is that we perceive that activity [as] creativity,” he says.

“But actually the value of what we’re doing goes down, it doesn’t increase. There’s not more creative ideas, there’s not more value delivered.”

One story people tell themselves when walking into a pressure situation is “in order to be successful, I need to be… perfect or better than I’ve ever been before”, Pawliw-Fry said. But everyone makes mistakes, particularly when under pressure, and this approach can lead to a belief that they can’t succeed.

Performing better under pressure is not about being better than ever been before, it’s “being really smart about the signs of pressure”, letting go of any mistakes that occur and “decreasing the duration of how long that mistake impacts your behaviour and performance”, he stressed.

“What we need to do is change our relationship to pressure. Those organisations that can give skills to their leaders to do this are the ones that will win.”

Pawliw-Fry says HR professionals and managers must first understand what can cause employees to feel pressured. These situations include when the outcome is important or something is on the line, when the outcome is uncertain, or when the outcome is being judged by someone.

These issues show up through an employee’s emotions, in their thinking (such as that they’re going to fail or forget important information), and in their physical sensations (such as sweating or feeling hot), he says, noting that most people “take a haphazard approach to pressure”.

When people feel strong emotions or physical sensations as a result of pressure they react negatively to it, they fight it, and as a result “they lose focus on the task at hand”. Instead, employees should be encouraged to befriend pressure.

“A big part of what we teach people is to be more mindful… you don’t have to fight it, you don’t have to resist it, you just have to let it be there. And the irony of course is when you let it be there, it has less of a hold on you and you can focus on the task at hand,” Pawliw-Fry said.

The most important part of helping employees work better under pressure is ensuring they understand what pressure looks like in themselves, and prompting them to reframe their view on it, he added.

Employees should be persuaded to see pressure less as a crisis or threat, and more as an opportunity to express themselves or share something they’ve been working on, for example.

Another effective solution is for managers to encourage their team members to write out everything they are thinking and feeling, both emotionally and physically, on a piece of paper 20 minutes before doing something they know will increase their feelings of pressure. Then, have them crumple it up and throw it out.

“I think it’s useful because what it does is clears our working memory, and in doing so we’re able to think more clearly and perform… closer to our capability.”