Have you ever been anxious about the outcome of a big project, job, or presentation? Often that nervousness feels unavoidable. How well we manage it can have significant implications on our performance.
According to the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (2013), our results will be impacted by whether we perceive a situation as a challenge or a threat:
"In a threat situation, the expectations are very high. You know you're being judged, and you feel you can't make a single mistake. Despite the intensity of the competition, the fear of mistakes invokes that prevention-orientation: You're trying to prevent catastrophe rather than initiate a success. Competitors feel more anxious, less energetic and avoidant. The risks of a situation become prominent in the mind. All of this changes in a challenge frame of mind. In a challenge state, you're not expected to be perfect, and not expected to win, but you have a fighting chance to rise to the occasion. You're free to take risks and go for it, which activates the gain-orientation system. A cascade of hormones is released that suppresses 1-TPJ activity, and the brain gets comfortable, as if everything is familiar. Competitors breathe freely, feel energized, and approach opportunities."
The authors go on to reference a study reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology done on Princeton undergrads:
"Researchers presented the students with a test of GRE questions. For half the students, the questions were presented in a threat context, they were told that their test results would determine the students' ability, a judgment on whether they truly belonged at Princeton. The other students got the same questions, but in a challenge context. That test was titled "Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire," and the questions were construed as brainteasers. Nobody was expected to solve them all."
In the threat context, the students got 72 percent correct. In the challenge context, they got 90 percent correct. "A threat situation negatively impacts your performance," the researchers conclude.
In the end, our mindset and perception (isn't life just perception anyway?) when approaching work is an important element to maximizing performance. Stress, i.e. the fight or flight response, prevents us from bringing our creative talent to a situation. Take advantage of these two keys to undoing the threat mindset:
- No matter the stakes, perceive the task as a challenge: Pay attention to your mental chatter around the task. Make sure you're telling yourself positive aspects about it rather than messages that create a threat. Find the fun in it. Create an expectation in your mind that it will go well--thinking it into reality is more than half the battle.
- Stop comparing yourself to others: Let go of what others think, and compete against yourself. Think like Shakespeare in Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true." Being your true authentic self and doing your best with confidence accomplishes more than pigeonholing yourself to please others. When you define what success is to you, then you don't risk putting yourself in losing battle situations. More often than not, taking on another's definition of success puts us in threat mode, causing worry, which blocks our ability to achieve what we want.
The goal is to maximize your capabilities in any given moment. If you start paying attention to how you're thinking and perceiving, you can avoid being your own worst enemy when it comes to performance. These slight positive shifts can make a huge impact on success.