Here is an article written by Jessica Stillman for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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You palms sweat. Your pulse races. Your throat gets dry. You’re standing in front of a room full of people who can make or break your career, and you’re about to choke. For most people this sounds like the set-up for a terrible anxiety dream, but for University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, high-pressure performance isn’t the raw material for nightmares but for brain science.
Specializing in what goes on in our brains and bodies during high-stakes performances, Beilock has spent her career learning something the anxious among us would love to know: why do we choke under pressure and how can we prevent it? After posting a bit about her new book on the topic, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To [click here]
Entry-Level Rebel [i.e. Stillman] got in touch to ask for more tips on how to develop a cool head under stress.
Are there any warning signs that you are about to choke?
There are a variety of brain and body reactions that happen in high-pressure situations, and some of these can be warning signs that our performance is doomed — especially if we interpret them in a negative way. For example, if you interpret a racing heart as “oh s**t,” then your performance may be about to crack. But if you instead interpret the same racing heart as a call to action, you might perform at a high level. And, of course, when the worries start, this is one major sign that a choke is coming.
And if you feel it coming on, can you do anything in the moment to prevent it?
In the book I talk about a number of techniques to “pause the choke” when we find ourselves about to crumble. Some of these techniques are specific to the activity we are doing. If, for example, one is performing a golf putt one has hit thousands of times in the past, slightly speeding up the performance or distracting oneself can actually be a good thing. This is because choking often occurs during these sorts of “automated tasks” when we try to control aspects of performance that are best left outside of conscious awareness.
Singing a song to oneself, counting backwards by 3s, or speeding up so you don’t have as much time to think about every aspect of what you are doing can be good things. On the other hand, if you are performing an activity that requires a lot of thinking and reasoning — a lot of cognitive horsepower — where considering all the details is a good thing (e.g., taking a difficult test in school, reasoning about an on-the-spot question from a business client), then it’s important to do things that help quiet the worries and allow you to devote all your cognitive horsepower to what you are doing.
Here are a few tips: First, think about what you want to say, not what you don’t want to say, because when you try not to think or do something, it is often more likely to occur. Second, know what you know. If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word. If you didn’t memorize it, pause before key transitions to allow yourself time to regroup. Third, remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch.
Finally, here’s one more: write it out. Our work shows that writing about worries and stressful events in your life can help increase “working memory” (a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness). It may even prevent other parts of your life (spouse, kids, house) from creeping in and distracting you under stress. This writing doesn’t have to be long, 10 minutes before a big event or regularly for 10 minutes a week can help ensure that we make the most of the brain power we have.
Your research found that high performers are the most likely to choke. Why is that?
Often the high performers put the most pressure on themselves, but that is not the whole story. High-powered people (those with the most cognitive horsepower) usually rely a lot on the prefrontal cortex, and the working memory housed there, to perform at the top. Under pressure, when worries co-opt these resources, high-powered folks don’t have all the brain power they normally have to perform at a high level, and thus they choke.
Are there any other characteristics that make a person more prone to choking?
Being a chronic worrier, being highly self-conscious, and a tendency to have negative outlook on a situation all contribute to choking.
I was fascinated by a study mentioned in Choke which demonstrated that black students’ scores on a standardized test rose significantly after the election of President Obama because they were less distracted by worries that they might be stereotyped. How big an effect can this “stereotype threat” have?
These effects are really interesting. It’s amazing to think that something as simple as checking off your race or gender before a test could impact your performance, or that seeing Obama — someone who defies stereotypes about blacks and intelligence — could change this. The effects are meaningful — for instance, the work we have done with women and math show that performance can be shifted around 10 to 15 percent on tests just by highlighting gender stereotypes in math.
So if you’re a woman going in for an important interview, for example, should you think about powerful and successful women before you leave the house?
Being exposed to women who defy the stereotype helps. But there are other techniques that I talk about in the book that work, too. For instance, we have shown that when women write about their impressive academic qualifications right before a test (rather than dwell on the fact that they are a woman), they do better on a math test. Other work has shown that thinking about all your different self-aspects — positive ones, especially, maybe you are a mother, a great cook, a good friend — helps take the emphasis off of your identity only as a woman (where a stereotype about math ability exists). Finally, some of the techniques I mention above (writing about your worries ,for example) can also help.
If a person starting out in a high-stakes career wanted to train themselves to be cool and unflappable under stress, what would you recommend?
A big one is to close the gap between practice and competition. Meaning, practice under stress. This gets you used to the pressure, so the high-stakes situation is not something you fear. Interestingly, this practice doesn’t have to mimic the extent of the pressures you will feel in a do-o- die situation. Even practicing under mild levels of pressure (e.g., your friends and family watching you) can help you get used to the real pressure when it comes your way.
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Jessica Stillman is an alumna of the BNET editorial intern program, which taught her everything she knows about blogging. She now lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Abbe Raven, president and C.E.O. of A&E Television Networks. She says business leaders should get out of the office more. Many, she says, “only travel on private planes, go from office to car to home to a hotel” and don’t really see the world.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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WANT TO LEAD? STEER CLEAR OF RARIFIED AIR.
Bryant: You worked as a teacher before you started in television.
Raven: And I worked in theater before I became a teacher.
Bryant: Tell me more about that.
Raven: I trained for it as an undergraduate. I wanted to be a director, and I became a stage manager. So I was very much behind the scenes and got great experience in college and directed and stage-managed a number of plays. When I graduated, I actually became a professional stage manager in regional theater in New York.
I loved it, but I made a decision that I needed to do something else. I didn’t want to work only at night. I wanted to have a normal family life. So, at that point, I went back to school to get a graduate degree in film and theater. I also earned an education degree at the same time and became licensed to teach English and drama, and so I did that for a few years.
I loved being in front of the kids, but at some point I felt this pull to get back into the entertainment world. Around that time, cable television was really just beginning, and I said, “I think that’s what I want to do.” I don’t know quite why, but there was something appealing about it.
Bryant: So how did you break in?
Raven: I didn’t have much television experience, and there were a lot of broadcast people trying to get into cable. I pushed my way into a job. I kept calling and eventually got to see one executive. He said: “You don’t have enough experience. I have people that have been working in broadcast television for years that want a job here. So they’re way ahead of you.” So I said, “I will do anything.” And he said,
“Well, I don’t really have anything.”
As I was walking out the door, he said: “Well, see these scripts here? I need them photocopied.” I said, “I’m in.” So I started Xeroxing scripts and answering his phone and then learned the business.
Bryant: And how did the teaching experience help in your career?
Raven: It really taught me how to think on my feet, how to command a classroom, how to get kids excited about storytelling. It’s what I do now — emotional storytelling is what television is all about.
Bryant: And the theater experience?
Raven: Especially in the early days of my career, when I’d be working on a production, it was exactly the same kind of organizational skills — how to be prepared, how to deal with talent, how to deal with crises, how to schedule, how to take a script and turn it into something live. It gave me great experience when we were doing live television because every night in the theater is live.
And working in theater taught me that it was all about being respectful of the team. It was collaborative, and every person was integral. There are so many moving parts, different egos, different goals, but ultimately you have to make sure everyone works together to put on a great production every night. It really shaped me to be the leader I am today, which is very much about building a strong team.
Bryant: Let’s talk about hiring. How do you do it?
Raven: No. 1, for me, is instinct, and I have a pretty good track record. And it’s a gut reaction when I first meet somebody, and I very often go with my instinct. To me, it’s all about who they are as a person, their chemistry, their charisma and their gravitas. Usually, they have the experience or, at least on paper, look like they do, but it’s really about who they are. Are they right for the chemistry of our team? Do they have qualities that someone else doesn’t have? Are they going to mesh well in our corporate culture?
I ask traditional questions, but also a lot about how they were brought up, their family life, where they went to high school. I try to understand their family, try to understand what they’re passionate about. Very often, it’s not necessarily about work. It’s about something else that gives me enormous insight into who they are and whether they are going to be successful here.
I insist on breaking bread with anyone I’m going to hire who’s going to work with me. I really feel that by having a couple of meals with someone, you get a sense of who they are. How do they walk into a restaurant, how do they deal with a waitress, how respectful are they to people around them?
But it’s also about identifying great people internally. I have what’s called the Next Generation team. We call them Next Gen for short, and it’s people from all different parts of the company.
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To read several of Bryant’s more recent interviews of other executives, please click here.
In the poem Richard Cory written by Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) and first published in 1897, the first two stanzas identify Cory as “a gentleman from sole to crown, /clean favored and imperially slim” who “fluttered pulses when he said, /`Good morning,’ and glittered when he walked.” Then in the two remaining stanzas, Robinson adds
“And he was rich–yes, richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
“So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that many people (as well as fictional characters) fail to lead a full and fulfilling life because they do not allow themselves “to experience the full range of human emotions” and thus limit their capacity for happiness. They need to give themselves the permission to be human…to ground [their] dreams in reality and appreciate [their] accomplishments.” Throughout this book, Ben-Shahar refers to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfectionism as optimalism. “The key difference between the Perfectionist an the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it…as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.”
Ben-Shahar organizes his material within three Parts: First, he presents his theory and explains how to accept failure, emotions, success, and reality; next, he focuses on applications of the theory with regard to optimal education, work, and love; and then in Part 3, he asks his reader to participate in a series of ten meditations: Real Change, Cognitive Therapy, Imperfect Advice, A Perfect New World, The Role of Suffering, The Platinum Rule, Yes, but…The Pro-Aging Industry, The Great Deception, and finally, Knowing and Not-Knowing. It is soon obvious that Ben-Shahar cares deeply about helping as many people as possible to recognize a painful paradox: “when we do not allow ourselves to experience painful emotions, we limit our capacity for happiness. All our feelings [e.g. both terror and serenity] flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. And these painful emotions only expand and intensify when they aren’t released. When they finally break through – and they eventually break through in one way or another – they overwhelm us,” as they did Richard Cory.
Who will derive the greatest value from reading this book? First, those who are struggling to recognize, understand, and cope with their own “destructive perfectionist tendencies” and/or those of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. For me, one of Ben-Shahar’s most important points is that each person is both a Perfectionist and an Optimalist. This suggests one of Carl Rogers’ most important points: The happiest people are those who are most comfortable living in their own body, people who (in Ben-Shahar’s words) “give themselves permission to be human.” The challenge is to recognize and understand human complexity because only then can we accept it and, in some instances, celebrate it as Whitman does: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
When concluding his book, Ben-Shahar shares some thoughts that will also serve as an appropriate conclusion to this brief discussion of it: “Perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct ways of being, an either-or choice, but rather they coexist in each person. And while we can move from perfectionism toward optimalism, we never fully leave perfectionism behind and never fully reach optimalism ahead. The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant start that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, `The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.’” I agree. However, for many of those who read this book, Tal Ben-Shahar offers invaluable advice on how to plan and then conduct their own journey of self-discovery.
I also highly regard two other books: Alan Watts’s The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are and Michael Ray’s The Highest Goal: The Secret That Sustains You in Every Moment.
You may wish to check oyt my interview of Michael Ray.
Without comment, from The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard T. Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin:
It is an empirical fact that most of the world’s cities live forever. Corporations, on the other hand, live half as long as the average human being… Corporations, in the name of efficiency, suppress variation by “getting all the ducks in line.”
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog in 2007. To check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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I just published a new book with a mildly obscene title: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The first question that EVERYONE seems to ask me is why – given I am an apparently a respectable tenured professor – I use such a bold (and to some, offensive) title.
Here are my top seven reasons:
1. My father always told me to avoid assholes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others. I learned, as an organizational psychologist, that his advice is supported by research on “emotional contagion:” if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.
2. I worked in an academic department at Stanford where we openly talked about the no asshole rule and used it in hiring decisions. It made the old Department of Industrial Engineering & Engineering Management a better place to work.
3. In 2004, I wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review called “More Trouble Than They’re Worth,” which talked about the no asshole rule. I had published other articles in HBR, longer and more well-researched ones, but nothing had provoked such a strong response. I’ve since received more than 1,000 emails on assholes (I just counted 77 new emails from strangers in just the past week.) and have been told hundreds and hundreds of stories. Some are troubling, like the fellow going through chemotherapy whose boss “told me I was ‘a wimp and a pussy.’” Other stories are funny (like the woman whose boss kept stealing food from her desk, so she made candies out of Ex-Lax, which he promptly stole and ate) and still others are encouraging (including notes from CEOs who actively screen out and fire demeaning people). The first example was the most common, and it reflected the pain that people feel when they are treated terribly, whether they are models, engineers, or CEOs who feel abused by their boards.
4. I was determined to use the word asshole in the title because, to me, other words like “jerk,” “bully,” “tyrant,” “despot,” and so on are just euphemisms for what people really call those creeps. And when I have done such damage to people (indeed, all of us are capable of being assholes some of the time), that is what I call myself. I know the term offends some people, but nothing else captures the emotional wallop. Not everyone agrees with me; check out this fantastic letter that a reader wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle after a story about my book appeared.
5. I have uncovered quite a few companies that screen out and don’t tolerate “workplace jerks.” Many of these places – law firm Perkins Coie, the research department at Lehman Brothers under Jack Rivkin, and software firm SuccessFactors – that have (or had) such rules may call them “no jerk rules” for public consumption. But when you talk to them, they talk about screening out assholes, not jerks. For example, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Boris Groysberg wrote me that they called it the no asshole rule at Lehman, but he had to write it as the no jerk rule in his teaching cases. My favorite company these days is SuccessFactors, which has all new employees sign 14 rules of engagement. The last is agreeing not to be an asshole! SuccessFactors is pretty successful: It has grown from 100 to 400 employees over the past year.
6. There are things that people out there who are victims of bullies can do to fight back and the word needs to get out. Consider this (edited) email that a government worker sent me about how she and her co-workers convinced management to deal with a nasty and demeaning co-worker: “I have worked [at a government agency] for four years and encountered the asshole of all assholes very early on. After months of being tormented by her and comforting other tearful victims, I decided to document her behavior. I kept a little notebook in my pocket and wrote down her behaviors that were racist, slanderous, threatening, etc. I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times. I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn’t do anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.”
7. The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!
You’re out there in the trenches. I bet some of these bosses seem familiar. Some of us may see a bit of ourselves in there, too.
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Sutton’s research focuses on the links (and gaps) between managerial knowledge and organizational action, organizational creativity and innovation, organizational performance, and evidence-based management. He as published over 100 articles and chapters in scholarly and applied publications. He has also published eight books and edited volumes. In particular, Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer co-authored The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge Into Action (2000) and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management (2006). His more recent books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (2007), The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), and most recently, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst (2010).
Each of the 20 chapters offers a profile of a major contributor to the evolution of American business history, beginning with one of my ancestors, Robert Morris (America’s “first real businessman”), and concluding with Bill Gates (“Microsoft’s cofounder and guiding spirit”). In between, Gross and his associates also examine other great leaders such as McCormick, Rockefeller, Morgan, Ford, Merrill, Sarnoff, Disney, Johnson, Ogilvy, Kroc, Wilson, Ash, Walton, and McGowan as well as major corporations such as American Express, Intel, Harley-Davidson, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. The reader is told, “This book is about heroes” and it really is.
Using the most effective strategies and devices of a storyteller, the authors examine biographical information within an historical context, sustaining interest with anecdotes while providing insights as to the causes and effects of each subject’s accomplishments. For Morris, essentially the economic survival of thirteen colonies during their struggle for independence. For McCormick, the industrialization of agriculture. For Rockefeller, the creation and development of the modern corporation. For Morgan, saving a nation’s financial system. For Ford, mass-producing affordable personal transportation. For Merrill, broadening the base of stock ownership to include those, among others, for whom the Ford Motor Company manufactured automobiles. Each of the other “heroes” discussed made equally important contributions.
A brief review such as this can only suggest (albeit inadequately) the wealth of information to be found in this volume. The prose has snap, crackle, and pop. The focus is crystal clear. The lessons to be learned from the careers examined are of incalculable value. Although this book will be of interest to almost anyone, it will have special importance for school, college, and university students who may sometimes wonder if there are any “secrets to success.” The answer is yes. The specifics are to be found in the profiles of individuals and organizations discussed in Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time.
Here are the last two lines from Farhad Manjoo’s article Why I Won’t Stop Writing About Apple and Google: They’re innovative, they’re fascinating, and they’re polarizing:
Nobody knows what the world will look like in 2015. But given their recent track records, my best guess is that Apple and Google are inventing it now.
Manjoo reminds us of the basics of the basics in this current business era – constant innovation is the name of the game. And what is being planned for, thought of, designed for tomorrow is underway today.
Are you behind, keeping up, or ahead? It’s not good to be behind!