Is pressure a good thing?

Aug 13 2007 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Under pressure from his rival, Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama (and his team) created a furore by threatening to bomb Pakistan – a key U.S. ally - if it failed to do enough to fight terrorism. Hardly the best response to Clinton's criticism that Obama was "naïve in foreign policy". An example, then, of an error of judgment prompted by stress.

It has been argued that decision-making under pressure is unwise unless the decision has been partially prepared before the need to make it has been reached.

The time needed to define the problem, search for alternative solutions and plan its implementation is not available under pressure, so one approach is to do as much pre-decision work as possible so that the decision itself is all that is required – allowing, in theory, rapid action to follow.

This logic has much to commend it and is the basis of emergency plans worldwide. For example, the UK government has a website dedicated to disaster planning which advises Britons to "try to remain calm" in the event of an emergency – something all too reminiscent of the "Don't Panic" on the cover of the Hitchhike's Guide To The Galaxy.

Staying calm and not panicking are pretty useful pieces of advice (no, really!) and waiting (even under pressure) can often prove to be a good thing (as in the Klingon proverb, "revenge is a dish best served cold").

Waiting – even for a second or two – is the technique behind the success of many people. And it is a particularly worthwhile technique when under pressure because each level of complexity in the decision requires more time.

Waiting is the technique behind the success of many people
Obvious enough perhaps – and the reason that the first thought ought to be, "how can I give myself more time to take this decision".

Of course, taking more time also gives more time to the person (or organisation) putting you under pressure, which can be a great thing if you want them to calm down and consider the position they have put you in, but less ideal if you want to score a point.

That would be like a tennis player sitting back on the baseline playing the percentages and handing the initiative to the swashbuckling Spaniard with the oversize arm who will go on to win his 78th game in a row. Staying ahead is important – only nine players have ever won a grand slam final with match points against them.

So being reactive is problematic (even dangerous) if planning and preparations are inadequate and waiting indefinitely is impossible when confronted with time limits.

The most important part of these preparations needs to be in HOW to take decisions under pressure. One approach used in soccer coaching uses teams of four against four to instil an understanding of length, width and depth without the unnecessary complexity of dealing with eleven players. This encourages players to become 'total footballers' who instinctively consider the angles of the game rather than being overwhelmed by detail.

This same innate ability is an attribute of many (if not all) of the CEOs of fast-growing companies. One 2005 study used the TAIS scale (Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Skill) - developed in the 1970s and used by recruiters for elite athletics and military units – and found that CEO scores for Self Confidence and Spotting Leverage Points in new situations were higher than 92% of the population. For Information Processing, they were higher than for any other group - including the elite athletes and military personnel.

In other words, the CEOs were peerless in the speed with which they could grasp new information and locate strategic opportunities.

Faced with many situations that do not allow a planned approach they are able cope under pressure because they enjoy the challenge controlling their environment. They are attracted by opportunities to demonstrate control – alpha, alpha, alpha – and so run towards the chaotic, eager to prove a point.

The pause before action (the wait) also provides a vital breathing space to determine what kind of decision needs to be taken. Is it Life or Death? Ground Stroke or Game Point? Delegate or Do? Reposition or Act?

If waiting has no negative impact but the decision is life or death (for career, company, or kin) then waiting is best. If the decision doesn't matter that much or only has upsides and no or little ongoing cost, then waiting is a waste of emotional energy or time – just decide. And if it is too close to call, there's always the flip of a coin.

But making these judgements is something those alpha CEOs get wrong (a lot). They think all decisions are the same and so use hunches when they should use steering committees – and they eventually exceeding their finite (but impressive) ability to grasp and choose.

Something else both individuals and organisations need is an ability to act on the unlikely and the unpopular by considering even the most unhinged or the out-there choices.

Scenario-based planning and similar techniques recognized the possibilities of the 1970s oil crisis, the disastrous Iraqi occupation and the 9/11 attacks, but people (both individually and in groups) have to be capable of acknowledging and acting on these possibilities.

Time to decide – without pressure – also has to be well used or it can lead to a decision and action vacuum – a period devoid of progress. Time to decide can just as easily lead to a ) Bay of Pigs fiasco as having no time to decide can.

But as the Darwin awards - given to those who remove themselves from the gene pool through fatal stupidity – remind us, people are constantly making bad decisions under no pressure at all.

These include a man being treated for a skin disease with a paraffin-based cream who ignored doctors advice not to smoke, igniting the cream and killing himself. Or the couple who forgot they needed oxygen to live and suffocated after climbing into a hot air balloon for a helium-powered last laugh.

Life is about pressure. Good or bad we might as well get better at dealing with it. Or not!

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.