For a number of the major sport leagues this is crunch time – the European football, rugby and basketball seasons are coming to an end, we’re in the middle of the NBA (basketball) and NHL (ice hockey) playoffs in the US, cycling’s Grand Tour season has just begun and the Indy 500 is fast approaching. The pressure cranks up and results matter more than ever. For sportspeople and their coaches, the desire is to do something special to match these elevated circumstances – do something outside their norm in order to reach a level they can’t normally reach. That’s just as true for those of us outside the sporting elite – whether it’s a significant project, opportunity, job interview or anything else that leads to something we particularly desire, when the pressure’s on we feel like the best response is to do something extraordinary.
As the inspiration for this post, I’m returning to John Wooden (who I introduced in my post on Personal Greatness), who recognised this effect in himself.
In basketball this temptation to tinker manifests as coaches trying to make last minute tweaks to playing style and putting more plays in the playbook, even though there teams haven’t practiced them through the season. Wooden found he was doing exactly this “in preparation” for the College playoffs, and that this was damaging his team’s performance – so he stopped. There was already enough pressure on his team without piling on more new learning, particularly when there was no time to practice it in game situations. This was one of many steps in John Wooden becoming the most successful NCAA basketball coach of all time.
This is just as relevant in the workplace as in sport. In Great by Choice (which I first mentioned here – and is a statistical comparison of high performing companies with lower performing rivals during change) Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen identified that sticking to your principles was a major differentiator between the great companies and the okay ones. Yet when leaders feel under pressure or are near to a major event (like sealing a big client) or feel under threat (like a challenging environment for the business), they often try to do something different to normal – they move away from the principles that made the organisation strong in the first place.
This is often due to “intervention bias” – humans are predisposed to taking action rather than letting things be, with the effect increased by the importance of what’s going on. I think everyone knows the feeling of wanting to do something (in fact, anything!) when you’re waiting. We tend not to think about what would happen if we do nothing; instead we just try to think of the best active choice. This effect is seen in a range of scenarios, including those where it’s extremely important, like medicine.
In order to mitigate this desire for action, you need to make sure the null hypothesis / counterfactual (i.e. what would happen if you did nothing) is seriously considered as an option. Choosing to do nothing often feels difficult, particularly if you’ve invested time/money/effort in getting to the decision-making stage (we’re not very good at rationalising sunk costs – hence why people often continue with concepts that have already been proven to be flawed), but it can be the right thing to do.
That, however, doesn’t explain why it’s particularly bad to intervene when under pressure – beyond it sometimes being a bad idea and any impact being amplified by the importance of the event. There are another few features which mean we’re worse at handling new information when we’re under pressure: 1) when under pressure (or facing a large reward) our attentional focus narrows and 2) for tasks that we’re well-trained at, thinking about what we’re doing makes us perform worse.
In my earlier post on the effect of pay on performance we saw that incentives can cause a narrowing in our focus – we can still perform well at straightforward tasks, but worse at anything that requires reasoning. We hone in on what things are “meant” to do. We see the same type of effect when people are under pressure (out of interest, you also see it when someone’s drunk) – our attentional focus narrows, meaning that we are able to consider fewer stimuli than normal. It’s entirely understandable; if you’re being chased by a lion then you want to focus on escaping, not on the beautiful wildlife across the savannah.
It does mean, however, we should be keeping things simple when people are under pressure. We can only concentrate on fewer things, so forcing people to focus on something new will reduce their ability to perform well at what they already know – and it requires more attention to do something new than something old, so the displacement is much worse than one for one.
In addition, for skills that we’re well practiced at we perform worse when we think about what we’re doing (when we’re unskilled we’re obviously better when we think about what we’re doing). Think about when you’re riding a bike; you can probably do it without thinking. But if someone told you that you were only allowed to turn your bike in line with your conscious actions, then you’d struggle – subconsciously we make a small turn of the handlebars in the opposite way we want to go, before then turning the “right” direction.
When we’re under pressure we’re more prone to thinking about what we’re doing. Adding something new forces us to think about what we’re doing, including the tasks we could previously do well. Yet again, sticking to the fundamentals makes us perform better when we’re under pressure.
So the next time you or your organisation have got something important coming up, stop and think about what you really need to do; consider both the counterfactual and the skills you – and, if relevant, your team – have. If you want to try something new, then it’s better to do it when it doesn’t matter too much. You always have lots of options, but when the pressure’s at its highest, it’s best to stick to the basics!