Today’s business world is a place of constant pressure and complexity. To be successful and rise in the ranks, we can’t ignore or run away from stress — we need to learn how to thrive within it.
Many great leaders rose to the top in part thanks to their ability to stay calm under immense pressure. According to a study of one million people, 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.
We tend to hate on stress a lot — not surprising, seeing as it’s not a fun feeling — but a certain amount of it is actually necessary for us to perform well. “Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of [stress,]” Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, told Forbes. “In fact, performance peaks under heightened activation that comes with moderate levels of stress. As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.”
His point is illustrated in the bell curve below:
It’s pressure that becomes panic that’s bad for you, not the pressure itself, says Justin Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure. “There’s a lot of research that shows that a moderate amount of pressure is critical for human satisfaction and gratification, otherwise we get very restless. We like challenge; we have to have challenge. It’s just that, if you overload and flood us, panic is what many people are talking about when they say ‘unhealthy pressure.’ The key is handling pressure without panic.‘”
And the better you are at handling the fire, the easier time you’ll have rising through the ranks. Here’s how a few high profile professionals, including some of HubSpot’s executive team, keep cool under high pressure.
Co-founder, Chairman & CEO, Apple
Steve Jobs was known for being a master presenter, and there’s just as much we can learn from when he “messed up” during his presentations as we can when he nailed them (which he did, most of the time). During the rare moments when things didn’t go exactly as planned, he had the uncanny ability to stay relaxed, converse with the audience, and even make a few jokes.
Check out the video below to see how Steve Jobs handles himself when his clicker stopped working in the middle of Macworld 2007’s iPhone launch:
Senior VP & CMO, Continuum Managed IT Services
“I love stress. That’s how I get things done. While we all have a lot on our plate, the concept of stress is misunderstood. I think it creates a level of urgency and helps us focus on what the most important goal might be in that or any particular situation — whether business or personal.
“I always ask myself, ‘Is this the worst possible thing that can happen?’ or ‘What is the worst possible thing that can happen?’ (Pick your better question.) Usually, what you perceive to be danger or negative is really not as bad as you think it is. After all, is there blood involved? If not, it’s probably just your perception of the situation. And, you can take a chill pill. Breathe. Listen to Pandora (I love Epic Soundtracks with the swooping sounds of Hans Zimmer).”
Chief Revenue Officer, HubSpot Inbound Sales Division
“My key to staying calm in high-pressure roles is disciplined prioritization and maintaining a balance across my personal and professional lives. I’ve worked 70-80 hours per week since I was 15 and, I hate to say it, but I’ll probably keep that going for a long time. I’m simply really passionate about the things I get involved with.
“But despite the rigorous schedule, I always prioritize activities that keep my stress in check: I run four miles every day; I meditate at least once or twice a day; I play the guitar almost every night; I make it home for dinner with the kids at least twice a week and avoid weekend work until everyone is asleep so family time is not compromised. These roles are marathons, not sprints. Squeezing in one more meeting or one more email at the expense of these balancing activities quickly leads to burn out.”
“When I am under pressure, it has never worked for me to ‘put it in perspective,’ as in ‘don’t worry about this stupid pitch because people are starving in the world.’ I have more success acknowledging when I am freaking out, and then I have developed a few rituals that help me stay cool. For instance, if I have a hugely important meeting coming up, I go into the ladies room, look in the mirror, and sing a song to myself. I have used the same song for over 20 years because the lyrics get me focused.”
Co-Founder & CTO, HubSpot
“Usually, I feel the most pressure when there is a seemingly overwhelming large problem at hand. My tactic to deal with this is to ‘deconstruct’ the large problem at hand into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Each of the individual, smaller things seem surmountable on their own, and it calms me to know that if I conquered all of those small things, I’ve essentially conquered the big thing.”
VP Operations, HubSpot
“For me, it’s all about staying organized and being methodical to get through stressful situations. I approach it like any other large project I might be tackling at work and will even create a project plan to get through it, as nerdy as that sounds.
“First, I like to take a step back and create a plan or framework on how I’m going to get through the situation or problem at hand before reacting immediately. Yes, this sometimes takes more time upfront, but always results in making the right decision (and sometimes getting it done faster). It also helps me to stay cool since it forces me to focus at a specific task at hand vs. stressing about the problem. By creating a plan around a problem or stressful situation it helps me prioritize what needs to get done and when and breaks it into achievable tasks, which keeps me focused while also allowing me to feel like I’m making productive progress.”
Partner, Scale Venture Partners
“To stay calm under pressure, I try to remember what’s the worse that can happen when things aren’t going well. This helps me reset expectations and I often realize that the worst is actually not that bad.
“Also, when I get overwhelmed, I made to-do lists to capture all the little tasks spinning around in my head. I use an app called Wunderlist, where I can easily add items and check them off when I complete them. This helps me clear my head and avoid the kid catastrophes like forgotten field trip permission slips.
“And there’s nothing better than spending time with family and friends to remember what’s important in life.”
Chief Digital Officer, Harvard University
“With 24/7 news cycles and the accelerating speed of new must-have technology releases (hello, Apple Watch!), it’s easy for marketers to feel the mounting pressure to master it all — above and beyond their day jobs. Here are a few methods I’ve recommended to try to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs:
- Write it down, and get it out of your head. Write down not only the most important things you must accomplish each day, but also the things you feel you should do, but don’t make the cut for right now. My security blanket is Evernote — there’s something soothing about knowing that tasks, outstanding questions, and big picture projects are accessible across platforms, anytime. Review the list end of day and end of week, and ruthlessly dismiss or delegate tasks that linger without completion.
- Get regular exercise. That can be a morning workout at the gym — or a just a walk around your building when you feel the pressure mounting or the urge to send a biting email. A brisk walk helps you think, and it can clear your head when you need to solve a problem.
- Employ the framing effect in how you talk to — and about — yourself. When someone asks you how you are, and you respond, ‘Swamped!’ or ‘Under water!’ you are reinforcing your own view of your work life as out of control. I’m a big believer in ‘fake it until you make it.’ On days when schedules seem insurmountable and problems seem intractable, tell yourself and others that you can get through this. Odds are, then you will.”
“My personality is pretty even-keeled and I don’t overreact too much. But when faced with a real pressure situation, I think the most important thing is to ignore all the emotion and try to focus completely on the outcome that you want. Then, make decisions and take action with just that goal in mind. You almost need to have tunnel vision in order to ignore all the outside noise that is creating the stressful situation.”
How do you stay calm under pressure? Share with us in the comments below.