The Evolution of Pressure

Performing in today’s pressure-packed business environment is no easy feat. Those who can’t stand the heat are advised to get out of the kitchen.

But what if there’s no exit?

Psychologist and professor Hendrie Weisinger’s book “Performance Under Pressure” looks at this predicament. Through interviews with CEOs, sports analogies and movie references, the book aims to illustrate how employees shouldn’t try to overcome pressure but rather develop the mindset to ignore it.

“When you’re watching the Super Bowl, you’re not going to hear once that the ‘stress is increasing,’ but you’ll hear ‘pressure’ all the time,” Weisinger said. Intrigued by this and personal experiences as a psychologist, Weisinger started to look at pressure from an evolutionary perspective — who invented the idea, how its definition has changed and how can people use its origins as a way to overcome it.

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Hendrie Weisinger, author of “Performing Under Pressure”

Weisinger talked with Talent Management about pressure and its affect on the workplace. Edited excerpts follow.

When mankind’s goals changed from ‘I need to survive’ to ‘I need to thrive,’ how did pressure evolve with it?

For early man, literally that first pressure moment was a do-or-die thing: You come to a ledge and have to jump 50 feet to the other side, no second chance. Unfortunately, today we have these same primal feelings, reactions and thoughts. ‘My life is over because I didn’t get into Harvard’ — that’s a primal thought. But for your ancestors, their lives were really over.

As society evolved, different roles popped up. People are under pressure to develop their skills. ‘As long as I’m a great master chef, I’ll always have a job.’

How is pressure different than stress?

Pressure evolved as a selection mechanism to weed people out. One of the differences between stress and pressure is that stress can sometimes be helpful. If your staff is lazy or you’re trying to develop your talent but you’re a lazy guy, one of the ways you can make a person more effective is put more stress — i.e., increase your demands. If you take it overboard, then it works against you.

A pressure situation is when you have to do it. Taking a nap is not going to help you land a plane on the Hudson River. Many people confuse stressful moments with pressure moments.

What are other misconceptions or myths about pressure?

We are not more creative or more productive under pressure. People confuse getting more work done with the level of the quality of work. Pressure is a villain. You’ll never ‘rise to the occasion.’ You can’t do better than your best, and your best might not be good enough.

If I had more time to spend on my book, I would have made it better. Directors feel the same way when they send in a final cut. Athletes don’t feel bad when they do their best. When we feel bad is when the pressure gets to us and we screwed up.

Why do people react to pressure differently?

In one way or another, pressure screws up your thinking. When you start thinking, ‘Is my editor going to like this?’ you’ll miss the deadline. It overarouses us, increases our heartbeats, and at one point, you lose physiological control and mental agility.

The brain is going to do what the brain does. The real culprit is how we process information. People who perform below their capabilities are the ones who perceive a situation as threatening. LeBron James would never use the word ‘pressure.’ He uses the word ‘opportunity’ or ‘fun.’

What skills should talent managers look for and develop in employees to help them work past pressure?

Confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, or COTE. That’s what every talent manager should be focusing on. How do I instill and build these attributes? For the most part, people with talent have those attributes. But if they screw up in a particular pressure moment, that COTE of armor can take a hit.

Teach people to focus and get rid of feelings of competitiveness. Young talent walks around wanting a promotion, but in their minds they need it. That would be like me saying if I don’t get speaking engagement I’m done.

Start to make your ‘wants,’ ‘needs’ — which happens many times — then you are constantly in need. That is more a ranking mindset rather than a mindset of excellence.

‘A pressure situation is when you have to do it. Taking a nap is not going to help you land a plane on the Hudson River. Many people confuse stressful moments with pressure moments.’

—Hendrie Weisinger, pyschologist and University of Pennsylvania professor


It is very important for people to validate their self-worth, which means they are able to see independent of their job that they have a lot going for them. What typically happens is that when people are on the fast track, their job becomes everything. Their self-esteem is so tied up in work that if they screw up, they think they’re no good. 


How can people get past self-worth problems that leave them prone to pressure?

One of the ways you can motivate people is by creating hope, which means creating pathways.

Willpower is motivation, and motivation starts with having meaningful goals. What will kill talent is I set your goals for you and they’re not meaningful to you. From an evolutionary standpoint, tenacity is not an attribute; it’s a process. As long as you stay involved in the process, you’re tenacious.

Nobody invented hope. It evolved because it helps us deal with adversity. It’s the job of every manager to instill hope in a staff because it will motivate them more.

 If you lose hope when you’re down 20 to nothing, the game is over.