How Stress Can Improve Your Performance
Recently, I read an article in which a developmental psychologist cited a mountain of evidence showing that IQ was one of the most significant predictors of emotional resiliency in children. The same pattern has also long been seen in the military, where it has been conclusively shown that higher-IQ soldiers show fewer signs of long-term post-traumatic stress.
Why would cognitive ability predict emotional hardiness? In truth, it doesn’t. But the tests that measure cognitive ability do. When you tell people they have 12 minutes to show whether they are smart or dumb, the ability to stay calm and focused under duress has a huge impact on the scores.
Heightened anxiety has long been shown to dramatically impair people’s ability to think. It affects basic functions such as short-term memory and processing of simple information, as well as more complex thinking, where anxiety can aggressively interfere with the ability to differentiate between important and irrelevant tasks. In today’s business environment of unrelenting pressure, aspiring leaders must learn how to confront heightened levels of urgency without allowing the accompanying mental agitation to be disruptive.
About six years ago, I interviewed “Ollie,” the CEO of a consumer products company. I had been hired to evaluate Ollie by his parent company because his company had been doing poorly. In fact, it was the worst-performing brand in the parent conglomerate’s portfolio. I had just presented Ollie with a hypothetical crisis that threatened the survival of his business, and was asking him to evaluate data, along with suggestions from colleagues and his board of directors, and arrive at a sound conclusion about what to do.
Just a few minutes before, when I had asked Ollie about his history with the company, he had confidently articulated the direction in which he was taking the business. Now he was struggling to offer even the most basic sense of how to proceed in a hypothetical, but very plausible, real-world crisis. When I would ask Ollie a question, he would offer an answer that was virtually incoherent. I recognized the shift in eye movements, the slight rise in room temperature, and the slight increase in human body odor. These are all the physical responses of someone experiencing an adrenaline flood that is overloading their higher-order functions. When this happens, a person is prepared to run, not think.