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Cause and Effect of Pressure

Cause and Effect of Pressure
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Understand the Cause and Effect of Pressure

Cause and effect are always interrelated, which means that when dealing with pressure, you have to understand the cause and effect of pressure.

As we discussed in the last post, pressure is often caused by the fear the erupts when an individual must perform at his/her highest level or face the consequences of failing.

We also talked about personal performance rarely being the best when performing under intense pressure. which emphasizes the importance of learning how to mitigate the effects pressure can have on you.

It was mentioned that some people believe (even brag) that pressure brings out the best in them. They are convinced they do their best work when under fire.

People who believe that they are better under pressure, have convinced themselves that they are able to rise to the occasion and deliver a performance that is better than their best, but that is faulty thinking. There is no such thing as “better than your best.”  The reality is that your very best is your very best regardless of the circumstances.

Unfortunately, when you purposefully set yourself up to operate under pressure because of such faulty thinking, there is a good chance that your outcomes may be consistently lower than what you are capable of producing.

Let’s look at an example.

Late one afternoon Jake was asked to put together a solution for an important client presentation the next morning. His boss emphasized that retaining this client’s business hinged on the client liking and accepting the solution that Jake would present.

Jake was a rising star in his company and in the industry. He had the expertise together with access to reports and documents within the organization prepared by others who had looked at this problem from several different angles that were necessary to come up with an acceptable solution.

Among the documents there were two which he noticed – one, prepared by John, a colleague of Jake’s, and one prepared by Steve, one of Jake’s managers.

John was a junior member of the firm with only two years under his belt; but, his approach to the client’s problem was an elegant, if unorthodox solution. Steve, on the other hand, had little prior contact with this client; but, he was a senior member of firm with decades of experience.  His approach to the problem was a “by the numbers” approach that lacked innovation and had not been particularly effective with previous clients.

Jake was very clear that he had been given sole responsibility to retain this client’s business for the firm, business that resulted in over seven figures of annual revenue. As he began to sift through the resource documents with the deadline rapidly approaching, a curious thing began to happen.

Jake could intuitively see the value in John’s approach. He recognized that John’s solution, while somewhat unusual, had great potential to solve the client’s problem. He also knew he didn’t have time to fully investigate every aspect of John’s solution. His instinct and training told him that John had probably found the answer, but the weight of making a decision in the time available took its toll.

The clock was ticking and because of the intense pressure, Jake found himself leaning more and more toward Steve’s approach even though he knew in his gut that the solution was old hat and probably wouldn’t work for the client in question.

The argument is Steve’s favor was that the solution was based on some tried and true information in Jake’s industry. Even though it was pedestrian, it had the benefit of being traditional and accepted.

In the end, Jake rejected John’s approach and decided to go with Steve’s solution, which (as Jake suspected) wouldn’t really work.  As a result, the client took his business elsewhere. Jake, of course, was held responsible for the loss of this business and his career at the company was negatively impacted.

Why did Jake reject the solution that he instinctively knew had a high probability of succeeding in favor or one that he was fairly certain would fail?

Performance Paradox
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Cause: Performance Paradox

A phenomenon that occurs when otherwise rational individuals under pressure reject positive information in favor of  familiar information even though it is negative.

People under pressure almost universally begin to move away from their skill sets and knowledge base into self-doubt. The reality is that pressure tends to make people hesitant and less creative rather than more creative.


Effect: Fear of Failure Controls Thoughts and Actions

The feel of failure causes them to dismiss knowledge and instinct in favor of rigid thinking. They dismiss personal insights that come from their experience and creativity in favor of generic solutions.

Even when they are working alone, they develop a group think mentality that shuts out creativity in favor of “known” mediocre solutions. Pressure has this effect in the academic arena as well as the professional arena.

Academic competition actually gives rise to a greater incidence of cheating. The general belief is that people who cheat on tests are lazy and unprepared – or simply not academically qualified to perform well on the test in question.

Often the truth is quite the opposite. Because of the intense academic pressure in colleges today, it is the most qualified and prepared students who are more likely to try to gain advantage through cheating.

Even though these students have more than sufficient knowledge to score well on the exam, they still succumb to the temptation to cheat. They take the risk of cheating with a clear understanding that cheating has the potential to end their academic careers.

The answer to this paradox lies in the insidious ability of pressure to cloud judgment, to get mired in self-doubt, to second guess, and look for an easy solution. The fear of failure is so strong that it traps people into making decisions that will create exactly what they are trying to avoid – FAILURE!

“Performance Paradox” is an apt name for this phenomenon.

The Solution

The solution to the Performance Paradox is to recognize it for what it is. This begins with recognizing where the pressure comes from.

There are many sources of pressure, but most come from inside ourselves. We are driven by our own unrealistic expectations, or by trying to live up to what we believe others expect of us.  We will talk more in the next posting about strategies to deal with those kinds of pressures.

However, before we look at that topic, there is one powerful external source that is driving much of the crazy behavior we see in the world today – technology.


Technology carries huge benefits for society, but it also brings its own unique set of problems. One is the mounting pressure in our lives because of continual connectivity with others. There is no escape.

Being connected with others is crucial to our well-being – and traditional connectivity is a very good thing.  But, technology accelerates and magnifies the process to the point that we are always connected with everyone. I call it the electronic lease.

Traditionally, we have stayed in touch with friends and family either through personal, face-to-face contact or long-distance communications such as letters and phone calls.

We would talk about how each of us are and what’s been going on in our lives. Communication was enjoyable and really meant something. Conversations tended to be longer and more meaningful because we knew it may be a while before we connected again.

Then there was the distance factor, which was a nice buffer that kept us at arm’s length. We had time to digest the news that our family and friends told us and, we also had sufficient time to miss them and look forward to our next meeting, letter, or phone call.

There was the thrill of anticipation of seeing or hearing from someone again that no longer really exists, because technology has eliminated the time and distance buffer.

Now, we can be in contact on a daily, hourly or, even minute–by-minute basis. This 24/7 constant communication keeps us on a never-ending informational treadmill – a treadmill that keeps getting faster and faster.

A family member, friend, or colleague sends you a text message that you don’t see or don’t have time to answer immediately, and 10 or 15 minutes later you get another text from that same friend or colleague asking if something is wrong.

Because you didn’t answer right away, the subsequent text makes you feel that you have done something wrong – that you are falling behind in the communication race.  Multiply this by all the “contacts” you have in your life – immediate family, extended family, close friends, social friends, colleagues, work fellows/bosses, etc., and the pressure builds.

You start to feel that you are not getting enough done. You think you are falling behind with everything. Maybe you are missing important communications . . . and the pressure continues to build.

This increase in pressure is not benign. In fact, it begins to exert a negative toll on your communication skills. Instead of being open and excited about hearing from people, you begin to close off.

Instead of listening, you begin to ignore. Instead of being empathetic, you begin to be judgmental. You stop noticing exactly where the communication is coming from. Instead you simply react to the communication in a selfish and self-centered way – and technology becomes a negative tool that you use to ignore or lash out at people.

The point I am trying to make is that pressure regardless of the source can make us more self-centered – when our natural instinct is to be outgoing and to embrace life.  All most of us want is to enjoy and love the people in our lives and to be excellent at what we do.

Technology has created a monster in all of us. We think we can pile more and more on our plates without any consideration of exactly how much our personal plate can hold.

The good news is that if you let it, pressure can reveal the exact size of your personal plate. It shows you when there isn’t any more room by making you perform far below your capabilities in all aspects of life – relationships (personal and professional), family responsibilities, school, and work.

Pressure diminishes performance and makes you settle for mediocre rather than excellence. It fools you into thinking that you are always able to bite off more than you can chew and continue to thrive and perform at your highest level – NOT SO!

Pressure Alters Behavior

The main effect of pressure is that it alters how we behave. We are usually not aware of this alteration in the heat of the moment. Yet, it is there, nonetheless.

If we don’t take the steps to recognize the pressure and what it is doing to us, and then, mitigate the negative effects, pressure will destroy everything we have built in our lives. It will effectively eliminate all of our positive actions that bring us closer to the people and the things we genuinely care about.

Points to Remember

  • Some people believe that they perform better when under pressure, even though that is not true.
  • Because of a phenomenon known as Performance Paradox, operating under pressure almost always guarantees a sub-par performance.
  • The paradox results in clouded judgment and indecision which causes an individual to turn to easy solutions.
  • It causes him/her to reject positive, innovative information in favor of more familiar, traditional information – that may not be the best choice and can produce negative outcomes.
  • The end result is that fear of failure causes the individual to make choices which practically guarantee failure.

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