We’ve all experienced it.
Freezing up during an important presentation or speech.
Showing nerves when a senior leader unexpectedly joins the meeting.
Rambling on and on during a big client meeting.
Why do otherwise high-performing executives, managers and individual contributors underperform when the stakes are raised? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Taking Conscious Control
No matter what field you’re in, you “practiced” thousands of hours to get to your current competency level.
The reason practice leads to competency is because it outsources skills from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind so you can perform those skills automatically.
We take for granted many of the skills controlled by our subconscious. Think of something you’re good at and break it down to the individual skills involved. For example, driving, which is automatic for most people, requires many skills. You need mechanical coordination to work the pedals and steering wheel, visual perception to stay in the lane and avoid accidents, and symbol recognition to read road signs and the various gauges on your dashboard. Let’s not forget the processing power to make quick decisions based on all of that information.
Despite having to use these skills simultaneously while driving, we no longer need to pay conscious attention to them. This extra brain power frees us to listen to audiobooks, carry a conversation, and even eat and drink while still smoothly driving to our destination.
For any skill, the more your subconscious takes over, the better you’ll be (granted you practice the skill properly). All top performers outsource many of their skills to their subconscious. That’s why it looks effortless, because it is.
So what does this have to do with underperformance?
You underperform when you take conscious control of skills that have already been outsourced to the subconscious.
In key situations, you want to perform well especially if you’re an overachiever. Your desire to be your best can unfortunately lead you to “take control” of your actions consciously, which actually ends up sabotaging your performance.
Think of the last time you underperformed during a high stakes situation? Were you “trying hard” to outperform?
What you can do differently: Trust yourself and the time you’ve put in to practice. For situations where you’re executing a rehearsed skill, you are better off letting your subconscious stay in control. Of course, if you’ve been practicing bad habits, you will automatically perform in a less optimal way whether or not you consciously take control. To practice properly, get strong coaches that will give you specific feedback during your practice sessions.
Revisiting the Past or Projecting into the Future
Think back to your best performances. What was going through your mind? You probably can’t remember thinking about anything. You were just in the moment — doing, not thinking.
Throughout our lives, we collect experiences and file them away for future use. Before high-stakes situations, our brain searches for and reviews similar experiences. It then projects the outcomes of those past experiences as the outcome for our upcoming situation. So if we’ve underperformed before when the stakes were high, we’re more likely to underperform again.
In addition to our own experiences, seeing others perform poorly can influence us as well. If your mind is filled with examples of people being nervous and freezing up during a speech, what do you think will happen right before your turn to speak?
When you flashback to the past to predict your future, you usually don’t take into account all of the training and practice that has occurred since that experience. A key idea to keep in mind is that your past experience is obsolete.
What you can do differently: Mentally rehearse successful outcomes. All memories are reconstructions, and your brain cannot tell which memories really happened and which ones were made up. Collect positive experiences to create a positive future. This will bring confidence as opposed to anxiety and self-doubt.
Another strategy is to stay present – a lesson I learned when I traveled around the world. To focus on the now, pay attention to the input from your five senses. If you’re in a meeting, notice your breathing, the sounds in the room and the faces of your teammates. When your mind is occupied with the now, it won’t slip into the past or the future.
Attracting Negative Results
The most common phrase people tell themselves when they have to perform in a high stakes situation is:
“Don’t mess up.”
Whether they’re thinking this or saying it out loud, it usually leads to one result:
When you tell yourself not to do something, you cannot help but to imagine doing it. Some people take it one step further and start “catastrophizing.” They imagine how performing poorly in this one presentation will destroy their careers. When your entire career is in jeopardy, it’s hard to stay relaxed and perform at your best.
What you can do differently: Focus on what you want to happen. If you are giving a big talk, tell yourself to “be engaging” as opposed to “don’t be boring.”
Deep down, we all want to do well. That is natural and normal. That is also why we put in the long hours. When the stakes are high, don’t try to rise to the occasion. Do what you’ve practiced to do and let it happen. If you’ve trained hard enough, you’ll do well. If you don’t get the results you want, train harder next time. Results are in the past and cannot be changed in the present.
Learn and move on.
To perform well in any situation:
- Trust your skills and all of the time you spent practicing.
- Visualize vividly the result you want before your performance.
- Focus on your five senses to stay in the present in the moment.
- Let go of the results and just do.
(Adapted from Robert’s original article – Three Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure)