Can you train your people to succeed under stress?
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Can you train your people to succeed under stress?

Imagine you’re training employees on an important new procedure – one they’ll eventually have to perform under pressure. You conduct several follow-up sessions to make sure your team understands what to do and how to do it. By the end of the learning process, they have the new process down cold. Mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast.

Research shows that reinforcing training concepts isn’t the only repetition you need to give your people. Unless trainees routinely practice new behaviors, they won’t be able to perform them at a high level – especially under pressure, when it counts the most.

The research

Hundreds of studies have been conducted on what psychologists call “social facilitation.” According to social facilitation theory, once we’ve mastered something, we raise our game when we perform in front of other people. But when we’re inexperienced, or still learning a skill, we do more poorly when we have to perform it around others.

In one study, researchers looked at people playing billiards. To measure the participants’ baseline skills, the researchers asked them to play billiards alone in a room, unaware that their performance was actually being observed and measured. Then the researchers asked them to play in front of an observer who would measure their performance.

Here’s what happened: The good billiards players performed better in front of an observer – making 10% more shots. But the less-skilled players did worse, making 10% fewer shots.

Why the difference?

Researchers concluded, unsurprisingly, that the presence of other people increases the pressure to perform. But here’s the twist: If you’re great at something, this pressure can be beneficial and cause you to raise your game – think of professional athletes, for example. However, it you’re not so good or not so experienced, the pressure causes you to choke, and perform even worse.

Researchers argue that “social facilitation” reveals people’s true skill level, or what they call the “dominant response.” Your dominant response is the level at which you would perform in real life when the pressure is on.

So, how do you improve someone’s “dominant response”? Through practice. And lots of it.

Regular practice transforms newly acquired knowledge and experience into a person’s dominant response. This is why athletes, soldiers and first responders train so extensively – to the point that it borders on overtraining. They need excellence to be second nature. They need to be able to handle the stress. And they need to hit a high level of performance without even thinking about it.


When conducting a training or coaching session, follow-up usually involves revisiting concepts to ensure learners understand them and haven’t forgotten any key information. And that’s important for knowledge retention. But if you’re training people on skills they’ll need to access under stress – for example, in front of a client or a potential customer – reinforcement is only the first round of follow-up.

You also need to provide several opportunities where learners can actually practice the new skill over and over and master it. Whether they’re facing a customer, a client, or collaborating with coworkers, they need to be able to deal with social pressure and raise their game when the heat is on.

So if you want to help people perform better under stress, have them practice under stress. Here are some research-based suggestions:

Make training challenging. Don’t make practice sessions too easy or learners won’t experience the stress that occurs in real-life situations. Instead, try to ratchet up the pressure by asking curveball questions or challenging trainees’ responses.

There’s no such thing as too much practice. If you need your people to succeed under stress, they can’t be uncertain or searching for the right thing to say or do. They need the right behaviors to be second nature. And the only way to achieve that is through practice. Just like pro athletes or elite soldiers, your learners need regular practice to skillfully deal with stressful situations and unexpected challenges.

Include a social component to practice. Performing in front of others adds social pressure, which can make or break a person’s performance. If you’re training people on a skill that will be performed around others, get them used to that pressure from the beginning. And consider adding emotional content to training exercises and role plays. Ask learners to identify the emotions of each person as they progress through a role play exercise or hypothetical situation.

Source: Michaels, J. W., et al. (1982). Social facilitation and inhibition in a natural setting. Replications in Social Psychology, 2, 21-24.

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