Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The 4 Ways We Handle Pressure (or Fail To)

When it's all on the line, do you step up or step aside?

Source: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

Think of your high-pressure moments—situations in which you have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on your performance. How would you characterize your thoughts, feelings, and behavior before, during, and after the moment has passed?

For the last 25 years, I’ve studied how people respond to pressure—and how we can do our best in pressure situations. Mixing empirical findings with clinical observations and data from workshops, seminars, and executive coaching, I’ve developed The Pressure Style Inventory (PSI).

The PSI is a clinical assessment tool that helps individuals identify their pressure style—consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, actions that individuals bring to and through the pressure moments they encounter and, if they're willing, helps them generate strategies to change it.

Here is one of the Inventory’s 20 questions:

You are parallel parking with a bunch of kids talking in the car. It is a tight squeeze and you don’t make it the first time. You:

  • A. Tell the kids to be quiet so you can concentrate.
  • B. Turn off the music they were listening to.
  • C. Take a deep breath and proceed.
  • D. Pull away and look for another space.

Early analysis reveals four distinct pressure styles. Here are some early diagnostics I’ve noted and implications for each:

1. The Pressure Cooker

Does not shy away from pressure moments and typically approaches them with a competitive attitude which often turns into hostility in high stake situations, be it in a discussion with a spouse or a client. The Pressure Cooker frequently confuses stressful moments with pressure moments and as a result, he or she is continually on high alert. In pressure moments, he or she easily arouses, making it difficult for them to perform or communicate to their capability. Besides doing poorly in pressure moments, Pressure Cookers tend to have relationships filled with squawking and often engage in counter-productive coping habits, seemingly to reduce their daily feelings of pressure. “I have to succeed," a Pressure cooker thinks. Pressure Cookers are persistent; they believe they can succeed, but get frustrated and angry when a setback occurs. It would be tough to live with a Pressure Cooker.

2. The Pressure Reducers

Often appearing to be calm, Pressure Reducers tend to be productive because they have learned to keep feelings of pressure to a minimum. Their main strategy is to slow down their operations and the operations of their environment. They have also learned to immunize themselves to the pressure of unrealistic expectations that others put on them. At work, they have a sense of purpose, but because their style is to reduce pressure feelings, they often do not respond to the urgency of the situation. "It’s no big deal,” a Pressure Reducer thinks. Pressure Reducers are easy to live with, except when you want them to do something that requires an effort.

3. The Pressure Avoiders

These individuals perceive pressure moments as very threatening. When in a pressure situation, they become highly anxious. Pressure Avoiders lose a lot of opportunities for career advancement because they rarely, if ever, volunteer for big assignments. At staff meetings, they are apt to be reluctant to share their ideas or criticize the work of others. The fact that many Pressure Avoiders are often very competent suggests that many might be one of the 18 million individuals with an anxiety disorder. Pressure Avoiders think, “I just want to get through it; I am finished if I fail.” Pressure Avoiders would probably not be successful in sales positions that require initiative, or in organizations in which advancement is based on high-profile successes.

4. The Pressure Performers

These individuals represent the minority. They perceive pressure moments as opportunities that can enhance their lives and thus approach them with confidence and optimism. Pressure Performers tend to have frequent bouts of enthusiasm and often volunteer and seek out opportunities. Pressure Performers do not try to exceed their capabilities; rather, they rely on the fact that if they perform to their capabilities, they will be more often successful than not. Pressure Performers hold thoughts like, “I can do this; I will do my best. If I fail, there will be plenty of other chances.” Pressure Performers are positive people, encouraging to others and often infect others with confidence and enthusiasm. We like to be with Pressure Performers.

Take a few minutes to reflect on your own pressure style and ways in which you might become more of a Pressure Performer, the style of choice. Modifying your thoughts, managing physical arousal, and focusing on doing your best rather than beating others are strategies that are sure to help.

For more information, check out Performing Under Pressure: The Science Of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most.

LinkedIn Image Credit: FS Stock/Shutterstock