How many of your people face challenges in their working lives which stretch them beyond what’s familiar? Challenges which you need them to embrace and rise to. Perhaps delivering a high-stakes presentation, taking a test or assessment, or tackling that important conversation to address performance issues…. A good outcome’s important to your business, but there’s a pervasive myth which might be getting in the way. Busting that myth has made a huge difference to lots of the people I’ve supported, and their organisations. So let’s dive in.
Imagine you’re about to step beyond your comfort zone with one of those challenges. Even if you’re well prepared, you’d probably be feeling stressed. The vast majority of people believe that the best approach in that kind of stressful situation, is to try to calm down. Not easy! And as it turns out, not very helpful either.
Harvard researchers measured people’s performance in 3 stressful tasks: Singing in front of a stranger, giving a short talk (the dreaded public speaking!), and a maths test. For each, the participants were split into 3 groups – one asked to say “I’m calm”, a control group asked to say nothing, and a group asked to say “I’m excited”. Nothing more – just to say it.
In all three tests, the ‘calm’ group performed worse than the control group, and the excited group performed the best – even though all three groups reporting feeling the same levels of anxiety.
So how does it work? Our conscious brain power, the thinking which we do on purpose, hasn’t got much capacity - we can hold only seven pieces of information (give or take a couple) active at a time. So if you’re delivering a presentation, the more you’re thinking about trying to stay calm, the more of that capacity you’re using up. Leaving less for the task in hand – for paying attention to what you’re saying, to your pace and voice tone, to what’s coming next, and to building rapport with your audience. So performance suffers.
Physically, there’s not much difference between the way we experience excitement and anxiety – increased heart rate, sweaty palms and focused attention. But there’s one big difference… In fight-flight, the blood flow’s diverted into the muscles ready to get you out of danger. In a positive heightened state, the circulation stays more balanced, so the increased heart rate takes more oxygen to your brain, improving your ability to think clearly. Just what you need when you’ve got to deliver.
Nobody expects their favourite team to walk out on to the field feeling calm on final day – if anything, they’ll have been pumping up the adrenaline as they got ready. They know how to channel the pressure into peak performance.
Now I’m not suggesting that you shout out a war cry, or thump the air before your next presentation, but ditching the ‘Keep Calm’ belief will help you to deliver an even better performance.
What stresses are blocking your people’s best? Do comment…