I dislike myself.
I fear the worst.
I change my mood a lot.
I am easily disturbed.
I get stressed out easily.
I am full of doubt.
I feel threatened easily.
These are sample statements from the scale that most consistently predicts poor job performance: neuroticism.
Neuroticism is the tendency to respond to threats, frustration and loss with negative emotions. Neurotic people blow things out of proportion, act compulsively and exhibit paranoia. Clinically, neuroticism is associated with mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addiction. It's even correlated with cardiac disease, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
Neuroticism compromises cognitive processing capacity and overall job performance. Emotional stability, by contrast, boosts creativity, working memory and task performance. Unlike neuroticism, emotional stability is correlated with job satisfaction and general emotional wellbeing. Wellbeing is, in turn, associated with high job performance across the board.
Emotional stability has increasingly positive effects on performance as a job gets harder and more complex. Neuroticism, on the other hand, has increasingly negative effects as pressure increases. "Experiencing low levels of state neuroticism may be most beneficial in high demanding tasks," researchers write. In fact, one study found that low neuroticism can be twice as important for performance in situations requiring emotional stability.
We're all a little neurotic sometimes, but our success hinges on keeping calm when stakes are highest. Below are three ways to remain emotionally level-headed under pressure:
1. Channel your anxiety.
One study found that situations requiring caution, self-discipline and threat anticipation occasionally benefited from worrying. Interestingly, this finding only applied to individuals with high cognitive ability. Researchers speculated that their reasoning ability could act as an "intermediary between the situation and the emotional impulse." If you have expertise or innate ability in a given scenario, channel your anxiety toward constructive reasoning (not helpless panic).
If you don't have experience, focus less on thinking through things and more on learning what you need for a situation to go smoothly. Julia Pimsleur, entrepreneur and author of Million Dollar Women: The Essential Guide for Female Entrepreneurs Who Want to Go Big, suggests, "Channel anxious energy into preparing. Every time you get nervous, prepare."
If I'm nervous for a job interview, I shouldn't try to calm my nerves by just telling myself I'll do great. Instead, I need to learn about the interviewer, write down questions, research the company and investigate the position. "Have you really done everything you can to prepare?" says Pimsleur.
2. Don't get ahead of the story.
Anxious people are more likely to jump to conclusions. This instinct can sometimes yield positive results, like enhanced emotional intelligence. Other times, it causes us to "go down the rabbit hole," as Pimsleur calls it:
"She's going to reject my idea, and then I'm not going to get a promotion, and then I'm going to be out of a job, and then I won't be able to pay my rent, and then I'll have to move back in with my parents."
Sound familiar? Stop yourself. "Do you actually have that data yet?" Pimsleur describes receiving a letter from a civil action group in California threatening to sue her new company for $50,000. Rather than pulling her hair out, Pimsleur gathered as much information as she could. After three days, a lawyer told her that these groups rarely sue companies with under 10 employees. Pimsleur's company had eight. "When we got to that piece of data, the problem went away."
Freaking out doesn't just compromise our clear-thinking capacity; it wastes time. "Really stop and think before you go into panic mode," Pimsleur told me. "You never get that time back."
3. Practice not reacting.
Research shows that rumination ruins wellbeing. Every day is an opportunity to take life as it comes. "The more you over-think things, the more you go into catastrophe mode--which can be your worst enemy, especially in terms of negative self-talk," says Pimsleur. Over-thinking can be a particular problem for women, who at any given time have 30% more neurons firing than men.
Replace obsession with hope. One study (among dozens) found that more hopeful sales employees, mortgage brokers and managers had higher job performance when measured a year later--even after controlling for cognitive ability. Hopeful executives also produce more and higher quality solutions to problems.
Rather than viewing a particular crisis as our life's defining catastrophe, we can see it as a chance to cope. "Build up this muscle of gathering data and not reacting, not going down the rabbit hole. These are great skills to have in life," says Pimsleur. Over time, we can accumulate stories of resilience and a personality that can calmly handle anything thrown our way.