Betty runs to the bathroom and begins to throw up. She is feeling the dread of getting up to present before co-workers and invited guests at the quarterly company meeting. She is to go on in 15 minutes. The last time she spoke to this group, her boss, the CEO, corrected her in front of everyone. It was bad enough that she painstakingly planned her talk and triple checked it for accuracy, but to feel challenged that way was embarrassing. She was “mortified.”
In Key Associates’ recent survey of executive women, one of the top areas of concern targeted by the respondents was feeling “pressure to perform.” Women often feel a need to get it right the first time or they may not get a second chance. The anxiety created from wanting to get it right can be overwhelming.
All of us feel some level of pressure when we need to act in a high stakes situation. In the book, Performing Under Pressure, the authors make an important distinction between stress and pressure. Stress is a state that is created around a stimulus like a thought or upcoming situation where we feel anxiety; however the situation is not on the level of life or death. Pressure to perform occurs when our performance really counts – defending a fellow soldier in a war, saving people from a burning building, playing match point at Wimbledon. Performance problems occur when we falsely label stress as pressure to perform.
Women are brought up differently than men when it comes to performance. Studies of male and female differences in how each sex responds to performance challenges show that males are encouraged to “get back into the game” more often than females are. Males are sent the message that mistakes are inevitable and resiliency is to be prized while females report getting the message that they need to do it right and make everything ok for others. For many women like Betty, being perfect is a strong message that can push you over the top when a boss is insensitive like the CEO.
Managing stress is a mental game. Many people, male and female, often see work situations as threatening. Fearful thinking undermines your self-confidence, diminishes your energy and negatively affects your physiology. If you can gain insight into how a difficult situation makes you feel and why and then go on to see it in a detached way, the chances are that you will minimize your stress. Once detached, the best way to avert a fear response is to re-frame your thinking and see the situation as a challenge. If Betty were to see her situation as a challenge and not as punishment, she could re-gain her energy and composure and allow her well-rehearsed presentation to flow.