Choking under high pressure

  • Article by: LIZ REYER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2012 - 3:35 PM

Q I have this problem that I can't seem to come through in high-pressure situations. I'm good at my job and know what to do, but then sometimes just don't follow through. What might be going on, and what can I do about it?

A Either fear of failure or fear of success could be at play in this situation.

The inner game

This is a high-anxiety issue, so get centered so you can think about it clearly. Find a quiet time and place and focus on breathing, letting go of any worries. Allow yourself to accept the past so that you can begin to understand your pattern rather than criticizing your past actions.

Then think specifically about the behavior you'd like to change. Taking past examples one at a time, consider the setting, the other participants, the desired outcome and other relevant factors. What elements are consistent? Maybe the same people are involved or you have to make a high-visibility decision. If you don't see a pattern right away, explore deeper and deeper levels until you identify a common thread.

Next, think about what you'd like to see happen. Finish the sentence "I would like to... ." Don't just answer it once; use this to brainstorm a broader set of insights about your desired outcome.

How about fears? What beliefs lurk inside about what may happen if you come through? You might be judged for your work and be found lacking? If it's never done, you always have an excuse. Or you might succeed brilliantly, which might fly in the face of a negative self-concept, or set the stage for even higher expectations.

It might be helpful to talk this through with someone else. Consider finding a trusted colleague or friend to be a sounding board and give an outside perspective. If it's deeply interfering with your success, you may want to seek professional advice through a coach or counselor.

The outer game

Build some inner structure so you can practice your follow-through. Let's say, for example, it's the delivery of a major report. Consider taking the following steps:

Step 1: Write out your project plan, including milestones and final delivery date.

Step 2: Identify all of the ways you could derail successful completion of this plan.

Step 3: Establish strategies to keep the potential derailers from occurring.

Step 4: Check on your progress regularly, taking a realistic look at progress and barriers.

Get some support, enlisting an accountability partner with whom to report back and work through issues. It might be your boss, or a colleague who also has a development goal that you can help with. Or, as noted above, you might want to find a pro to work with on this.

And acknowledge your successes, even the small ones. When you successfully move forward, feel some pride and give yourself a reward. It may be as minor as a quick break to reflect on your achievement, but it'll help build momentum.

The last word

As you move to higher levels, the challenges get greater, so take action to prevent your fears from holding you back.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at

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