Successful people in high pressure roles manage stress differently from the rest of us–and it shows … [+] in their success.


Every successful person faces significant stress. Yet, the most successful among us learn how to face the causes of their stress, head on.

Take emergency room physicians, for example.

I’ve spoken to groups of doctors in the past about the dangers of cognitive biases. These are mental hangups often triggered by stressful situations, such as time-pressures and pinch decision-making when life or death is in the balance.

Cognitive biases, however, can lead us to follow our gut instincts rather than process the facts at hand. For physicians, that could mean making the wrong diagnoses, administering the wrong treatments or cutting and sewing up patients in the wrong places.

A popular antidote to cognitive biases in the medical profession is debiasingtraining wherein professionals are taught to consciously identify typical biases and mentally arrest them on the spot. Yet, a more general cure for avoiding bad decisions under stress involves developing stress coping strategies.

That’s another place where behavioral science can help. I’ve written elsewhere about how resilience and mental toughness are our abilities to bounce back from major stresses. Mentally tough and resilient people handle stress effectively by consciously developing coping strategies into habits.

In that connection, several studies of successful professionals in high pressure jobs have identified at least 3 of the most powerful ones, including:

  1. Taking a problem-focused approach. Studies over the last decade have consistently found that successful business leaders, military leaders, medical professionals and athletes all focus on problem-solving at the outset of a stressful situation. Under a problem-focus strategy, the person tries to identify the source of stress, then remove it. Thus, if it’s an airline pilot landing a plane in bad weather when the auto-pilot cuts out, he or she might attempt to address the vulnerabilities of the aircraft or the specific conditions on the runway. They then come to grips with what needs to be done to land safely. On the other hand, if it’s a surgeon, a problem-focus might involve getting some sleep before an operation or learning some breathing exercises that remove feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. Indeed, a business executive under high pressure might try to directly tackle a problem issue in a project (or a key person) rather than allowing it to fester and continue creating stress. In almost all cases, the most successful people under study have tried to address what causes the stress they are feeling first. Only after this, do they seek alternate strategies.
  2. Avoiding an emotion-focused approach, unless necessary. Prevailing stress management advice tends to focus on controlling negative emotions. For example, many therapists tell people to learn how to relax, calm down, or try to see the situation in a different light (i.e., ‘reframe’). But while these methods have been shown effective when a situation is far beyond a person’s control (e.g., in the case of bereavement or sudden job loss) they are less effective when an important decision needs to be made. To the contrary, studies suggest highly successful people suppress their strong desires to address their own emotions in favor of taking the above, problem-focused strategy. This is a type of emotional intelligence, specific to mental toughness. It means setting one’s self aside. And the reasoning behind the approach seems pretty clear. For high pressure professionals, the welfare of others is often dependent upon their decisions. If such people internalize the stresses they face on a personal level, they could be reassessing a situation with the wrong emotions. For example, this can easily happen if they employ emotion-focused strategies, such as reframing. Just as it sounds, reframing means viewing a situation and its key implications in an alternative, more positive light. Yet, while reframing is an excellent approach for an individual dealing with personal disappointment, it’s a less desirable strategy for an emergency surgeon preparing to operate on a patient with low chances of survival. In other words, reframing in the wrong context could create confusion or even delusion. Thus, where the cause of the stress can be identified and eliminated or even significantly alleviated, personal emotions need to be set aside.
  3. Getting high quality sleep. Yes, highly successful people burn a great deal of midnight oil in accomplishing great feats; yet, that doesn’t mean they ignore the necessity of getting quality rest. Many of us confuse the two. In a study that compared participants getting 5 hours versus 9 hours of sleep, for example, there was little difference between high-performers, except when it came to sleep quality. ‘Quality sleep’ typically means getting to sleep quickly and deeply and feeling rested upon awakening. The 5 hour group tended to report greater quality sleep if they’d organized their upcoming work week, adjusted to the idea they were going to be tired all day, but took mental solace in the fact they’d more hours awake to get work done. In other words, for fear of having insufficient energy, they ‘pre-managed’ their work stresses. However, the positive effects of these mental strategies on work performance wore off by day 4 of the work week, when fatigue took over. By contrast, the 9 hour group often felt time was being wasted on too much sleep. As a result, they often didn’t pre-manage their stress, fell asleep later after going to bed and felt more stress when they needed to drop whatever work they were doing to jump in bed. Thus, in many cases, the latter group got lower quality sleep. Nonetheless, neither situation was ideal for the long-term. The key insight is actually that successful people spend time experimenting with determining both the amount of sleep they biologically need (i.e., that enables them to maintain productivity over the long-term, without crashing and without caffeine-binging) and with what gives them the best rest. BOTH are necessary and there is no substitution between them.

As in other discussions of successful people, it’s impossible to limit the habits describing their success to a short list. Yet, the above 3 habits represent a snapshot of what science says can make just about anyone more effective at making decisions when stress strikes. That, by itself, is a significant step towards greater success.