Pushing Past Performance Paralysis

Many years ago, I took a new position and, with the new role, I got a new boss, Ray. Ray was accomplished, polished, and brilliant. Those are the reasons I took the position, to have an opportunity to work with someone so gifted and hard-working. But at the same time, all of those traits of his made me nervous. What if he discovered that I wasn’t accomplished, polished and brilliant? What if I failed?

I didn’t have long to wait for my opportunity to shine. During my first week in the new role, Ray invited me to a meeting he was holding with a group of consultants from IBM, Accenture and other vendors. In way of preparing me, he told me to make careful observations about what was said and not said, and then he asked if I would write up a summary to send him afterward. He wanted an idea of my thinking process as well as my observations skills.

The meeting went well. I took in everything, made a long list of questions that I believed had gone unanswered, and I ended up with a Word document that contained about 2 pages of logical, bullet-pointed notes. I read and reread the document many times, and my finger hovered over the SEND button on my email.  Once certain that my document was perfect, I hit send.

Within minutes, Ray responded. He said, “SHOULD I TAKE THIS PERSONALLY?”

What?! Take what personally? What had I done?

I pulled up the email, and I read it several times. Upon reading it a few more times, it still looked brilliant to me. So I didn’t know what he meant by that response. I was ready to send him a message asking him to clarify, and then my eyes caught the subject line: “RAT’S CONSULTANT MEETING SUMMARY.”

A typo. In my brilliant summary. And I had just called my new boss a RAT.

I attributed the error to many things, but the reality was that my performance anxiety caused me to choke. In wanting to be perfect, to impress the new boss, I became blind and made a rookie mistake.

Think about watching a performer, like a gymnast, singer or a speaker. I’ve noticed a couple of simple parallels. If a performer looks nervous, he doesn’t perform very well. And while watching him perform, I can’t relax. I get all uptight worrying that the person is going to die–figuratively or literally–while I’m left watching! On the other hand, when someone is having fun and enjoying himself, he does well. And I relax, free to enjoy being in the audience and watching someone accomplish greatness.

Do you ever have performance paralysis? If so, here are a couple of simple things to help you push past it…

Prepare carefully for the performance. Regardless if you’re endeavoring to break a world record, sing karaoke for the first time, or reach high performance goals at work, the principles of preparation are similar:

  • Plan the performance from start to finish, and picture yourself performing well. Picture how the audience–or your boss–is going to respond to the fantastic job you are going to do. Call it positive visioning, positive thinking, or wish-fulfillment. The name attached to this exercise is less important to the outcome than the discipline of the process itself.
  • Practice the performance in an environment as close as possible to where the real-world performance will occur. If you are going to give a speech standing in front of a podium, get used to standing in one place and using gestures and vocal inflection to keep the attention of the audience. If you are preparing for a test, try to replicate the various elements that will be present in the test-taking environment. Is it a timed test? Are there other distractions you need to shut out? Other pressure to combat besides the test itself? Try to replicate as many detail as possible when you practice.
  • Request feedback about your planning and practice from those whose opinion you respect. Praise is nice. It tells us we’re doing a good job. But real, honest, corrective insights are required for performance improvement. We can’t always fix what we can’t see. Ask others to evaluate what you’re doing and how to improve. Incorporate the ideas that you value, and practice some more.

Put yourself in a relaxed state of mind before the performance. You can’t remove all of the anxiety. And that wouldn’t be a good idea even if you could. You need some tension to fuel your brain and key your muscle-memory so you can perform at your best. But you can become more relaxed. How? Tell yourself…

  • Everyone wants to see you succeed. There’s nothing worse than watching someone trying NOT to choke. Make those around you relax by you being relaxed. Ease breeds ease. If you look relaxed, the audience will relax. When you see them relax, you will start to internalize that feeling by letting go of unproductive tension.
  • You are ready for this. If you’ve done adequate planning and practice, and you’ve sought counsel from those you trust, you have every reason to be confident. Confidence isn’t arrogance. Confidence is the calm acceptance on your part that you are prepared to do a great job. Arrogance is the loud proclamation that you are worthy of lavish attention and praise. Most people love to see these people split their pants and fall off the stage to take them down a notch…
  • This will be fun! If you’re having fun, everyone else will have fun. If you look like you’re in pain and scared to death, that’s what everyone will expect to receive from you. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who said, “I’m not sure what that bump is on your arm is. It could be nothing, or it could be really serious. But I’m not really an expert on that sort of thing, so I don’t know what to tell you…” You expect your doctor to be an expert on many things. Likewise, your audience expects you to be the expert on whatever it is you are performing. That means your confidence and ability to enjoy yourself is built in…and even required. So take advantage of it!

Performance anxiety is normal. And for some, the pressure of needing to perform well–whether it is driven by your own desire for perfection or by someone else telling you that you need to be great–will be a constant source of stress. But there are things you can do to take charge of that tension. When you over-think and under-prepare for a performance, you become susceptible to blind spots. When you use your tension to fuel your planning, frame the picture of your success, practice your performance, and get feedback on how you can do better, you’re in a better place to relax and enjoy the benefits of your labor.

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  1. Marsha Ross-Jackson says:

    I love this Scott! I put lots of pressure on myself to do the best job ever and you’re right, it sometimes cause paralysis. With experience I have learned to relax, particularly now that I’m more confident in my knowledge, skills and abilities which have been tested overtime in several different environments.

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