Two and a half million people. That’s how many showed up for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball.¹ Two hundred and twenty-five mph, and up to 6 gees. That’s the speed and G-force that Lewis Hamilton works with, in clocking up six Formula 1 world championships. Three thousand five hundred nautical miles. That’s how far Greta Thunberg sailed — at sixteen years of age — before addressing the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.
Every rockstar, every athlete, every leader knows what pressure is. They know what stress looks like.
To be clear, they don’t always succeed. They’re not always at the top of their game. They’re human — they get performance anxiety. They get frustrated. They have disappointments.
Their success can be attributed to a number of factors. Luck, timing, practice, access to coaching, great genes, great work ethic. But, they have something else too — they know when, and how, to maximize their performance. In a game of inches or fractions of a second, this is what makes the difference.
This secret — what it takes to perform, what it takes to win — goes by different names: Mental Game. Mindfulness. Staying in the moment. Being centered. In the now. Flow.
And it doesn’t just apply to superstar athletes. Or famous talent. It applies to the rest of us too — regular people.
Performing at our best is difficult at the best of times. There is no magic pill to take, or automatic subroutine to do this for you. Ironically, when you need to perform well — in a crisis or under threat — it’s harder.
We’re worried right now. Coronavirus is tracking as the #1 worry globally, according to IPSOS research.² Notice how previous “worries” have dropped dramatically — crime and violence, corruption and financial or political scandals, and poverty & social inequity. COVID-19 is the biggest worry, along with an uptick in unemployment and healthcare.
This feeling of worry is very human, very normal, and completely irrational. Saying that doesn’t lessen it or make it go away though. To be successful, we have to learn how to take our worries, our pressures, our threats; work with them, process them, and still work.
We have to begin with how we understand threats.
Dean Mobbs, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Caltech identifies three levels of threat.³ According to Mobbs, these levels alter our behavior. Mobbs defines them in typically scientific terms⁴, — think of them as distant, community and imminent.⁵
As this threat level increases, and we see it as moving from far to near, the threat makes it harder and harder to operate. It dominates our thinking. This makes it doubly difficult to perform, and perform well, as our worries overtake us.
Psychologists Yerkes and Dodson measured the link between performance and stress.⁶ Only they didn’t call it stress. They called it arousal.
No stress (arousal) isn’t a good thing for performance. Without stress, things don’t hold our attention or interest. We’re bored and underloaded. Commitment and loyalty go down; absenteeism goes up — all sorts of things we don’t want.
With the right amount of stress, things start to hold our interest and we pay attention.
Too much stress makes performance worse. We get overly anxious, irritable, and worried. If stress continues to build, we get mistakes and conflict. We get overload and burnout. This is called “allostatic load.”⁷ It causes wear and tear on the body, it accumulates as chronic stress.
We all need some stress. Good stress leads to performance and builds psychological safety.⁸ It’s when we feel a buzz from our work. We feel excited, proud, and get a sense of achievement. It’s where we feel Touch and Task in just the right blend.
This may sound like a weird idea — that stress can be good, but think about it for a second though. You have experienced good stress before. The stress for a job interview or exam that got you to prepare. The stress of preparing for an important client pitch or major presentation.
When it comes to the perfect level of stress, we’re not all wired exactly the same way. Some people can deal with a lot more stress, and still perform at very high levels.⁹
Gordo Cooper was the youngest of the original Mercury 7 Astronauts. He was the last to get into orbit. Strapped into his spacecraft, Faith 7, he’d been awake since the early hours preparing for liftoff. It was May 15th, 1963, nearly sixty years ago. This was Cooper’s second day cocooned in a cramped capsule, on top of thousands of gallons of highly explosive rocket fuel. The mission had been scrubbed the previous day due to a fuel problem in the gantry tower. Cooper was tired, and waiting for mission control to go through its final checks.
With all that stress, all that delay, the history of launch failures and catastrophes, Cooper did what very few people would do — he took a nap.
Not everyone is Gordo Cooper. Or Lady Gaga, or Greta Thunberg. We all need to deal with a different level of stress to perform at our best. What every great performer understands about stress — is how to use it to perform in a way that works for them. They know how to get into their sweet spot.
You’ve heard of this sweet spot before. If you took a psych class at school, you heard of it as a state of flow. If you take yoga, you might know it as being in the moment. If you’re resilient, and can bounce back from a bad sales or customer service call, then you’re being mentally tough.
Whatever you call it — how do you get to this sweet spot, and how do you stay there? How do you get above the line, when circumstances (like a crisis) are forcing you below the line?
You can’t control other people. You can’t really change the environment around you. You can only control three things.
As a leader, you have to manage this — not just demonstrate self-leadership, but be able to coach and support your team through this.
We need to build a place of psychological safety. Where people feel motivated, safe and inspired to perform. That’s a leadership job. Psychological safety doesn’t exist at a company or business unit level.¹⁰ It exists at a team level. It’s something leaders and teams create for themselves.
To do this, we need to turn a negative trio into useful feelings — anxiety, frustration and regret. They can help us get up and move forward. They help us perform. Frustration helps us improve things. Anxiety helps get us going. Regret helps us learn things. They’re all constructive feelings.
Taken to excess though, they become anger, fear, and shame. They’re the path to poor performance. These ‘destructive emotions’ appear under times of threat, crisis, or uncertainty.
Between these two poles, lies the performance sweet spot. In that zone we meet three needs. Our need for control, security, and approval.
Our challenge is how to use the forward forces of frustration, anxiety, and regret, without over-indexing to the destructive forces they twist into.
Plenty of events trigger frustration. Maybe we expected a customer to ink a deal, and they’re dragging their feet. Maybe we asked for support from another part of the business, and they aren’t getting back to us. A customer record is incomplete. That frustration can lead us to blame other people, places or things.
On the other hand, frustration is the source of most of the world’s inventions. Remember the story of the Post-it note? Art Fry — the guy who invented them, was frustrated. The pieces of paper he was using to bookmark his hymnal kept falling out. He didn’t want to crease the pages, so he invented the Post-it note. Frustrated by the way the world is, the inventor improves things.
That’s not what most of us do though. If something’s out of our control we tell ourselves a story. The customer’s slow to ink that deal because they’re looking at the competition. Or, because we didn’t put our best foot forward. Or, because we overpriced this one.
We get annoyed about that story. Then we lash out. That customer doesn’t know what good looks like. Someone on our team dropped the ball. Our pricing doesn’t work for this market.
Rather than lash out, focus on the now. Focus on what you can control. Maybe that’s another call to the customer, to get at their needs. Maybe there’s a way to work with the pricing team for this type of buyer.
We have a big sales call coming up. Or a difficult conversation. Maybe we’re up for a promotion. Maybe it’s a big presentation we have to do.
Anxiety is useful when it gets you going.
Think about a situation where you’ve felt anxious. On a good day, that anxiety helped you prepare.
It all goes wrong though when we tell ourselves that story, and put a thought on top of the feeling. Where we think about that big sales pitch or presentation too hard, and wonder what happens when it all goes wrong. Where we flub a line and embarrass ourselves...
…and because of that, we don’t win the day. And because of that, we lose the customer. And because of that, I get blamed. And because of that, I’m off the account... and before long, I’m homeless and divorced, with kids just starting college.
That line of thought is paralyzing — and leads us to put things off. To stay in the sweet spot, we need to get in the present, and think about what we can do now. Take the first step. Even if it’s only doodling on a piece of paper to prepare for that presentation — it’s something. And it gets you going.
We regret an event that happened in the past. Maybe we had the interview, but didn’t get the job...
Regret is useful, if we learn from it. It motivates us to get better, or to learn from our mistakes.
Think about times where you’ve dwelled on something in the past — but didn’t use the regret usefully. Most people blame something. They take that regret and wrap it up into a story they tell themselves. They may blame themselves. They may blame others. They may blame circumstances. But when we do that, it’s difficult to learn from our mistakes.
Fix the problem. That’s how you get above the line. That’s how you keep growing as a person, or a leader. Where you use regret as a motivator to continually improve.
Here are six keys to maximizing performance.
How do you maximize performance? First, Focus on what you can control. Make your frustration work for you.
Next, Take the first step. Don’t put it off because it’s too scary. Put your anxiety to work.
Third, fix the problem, not the blame. Use regret in a positive way.
Keep your focus on learning. A learning mindset (rather than the white-knuckled locked-onto-delivery mindset) is one where we’re curious, open, and expansive. These are just the qualities we need to stay productive.
Being in a learning mindset also avoids the instinct to blame. It helps us work as a team to find root causes and create solutions.
Certainty provides a foundation. It can be as simple as your daily routine, or the familiar structure of a weekly team call. Focus on an outcome, a North Star, shared goals, clear priorities. All these provide that foundation of certainty. Certainty is a secure island of normal in unpredictable times.
Team members also need to feel choice, and a sense of control. Find areas where the team can enjoy options,and a positive sense of self.
Conflict drives healthy competition and innovation. Within a team though, it can spiral out of control and become destructive.
When conflict arises, remember you’re all moving towards the same goals — you all want a win for the team — just by different methods.
Find areas of common ground and build those into collaboration. Conflict, no. Collaboration, yes.
Three levers, always within grasp. Even when the world feels like it’s out of control, some things stay firmly within our control; our immediate effort and mindset, where we choose to place those efforts, and what we choose to do right now.
This is what high performers understand — the levers we can work with, even when we’re under pressure.
The skill lies in remembering we have access to them, and making a conscious choice to use them.
² Coronavirus Dominates Global Worries.” Ipsos.
³ Mobbs, Dean et al. “When fear is near: threat imminence elicits prefrontal-periaqueductal gray shifts in humans.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 317,5841 (2007): 1079-83. doi:10.1126/science.1144298
⁴ Mobbs definition: “Pre-encounter,” where there is risk in the absence of immediate danger; “post-encounter,” where the threat is detected; and “circa-strike,” defined as distal or proximal interaction with the threat stimulus.
⁵ This example assumes you are a member of the general public in the U.S. with no specialized knowledge of epidemiology. Adapted from: David, Cliff. “Manage Your Mindset by Understanding These 3 Levels of Threat.” NeuroLeadership Institute, 8 Apr. 2020.
⁶ “The Yerkes-Dodson Law: Performance and Arousal.” Exploring Your Mind, 11 Jan. 2019.
⁷ McEwen, Bruce S. “Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference?” Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN vol. 30,5 (2005): 315-8.
⁸ Delizonna, Laura, et al. “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here's How to Create It.” Harvard Business Review, 24 Aug. 2017.
⁹ Story and example adapted from: Fabritius, Friederike, and Hans Werner Hagemann. The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, TarcherPerigee, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018, pp. 3–14.
¹⁰Edmonson, Amy, et al. “Webinar: Leading Through Crisis with a Futurist and the Founder of Psych Safety.” Neuroleadership Institute.