HAVE you ever looked back on a stressful event and wondered how you could have responded better?

A myriad of better reactions often comes to mind: things you could have said or done differently to bring about a different and better final result. Some call that “the wisdom of hindsight”.

But one leadership, productivity and performance expert has looked far deeper into the issue. Dr J P Pawliw-Fry has researched both the science of the brain and human psychology to determine why people freeze up or lose their cool under pressure. And more importantly, he has worked out a way to change that behaviour.

Internal technology

Dr Pawliw-Fry and his team at the Institute for Health and Human Potential are inspired by “internal technology” — the ways the brain interacts with emotions to create differing results in different situations — and the ways to override some of those unproductive default settings.

The brain shuts down

This science is called psycho-neural immunology and successful answers to some of its questions will hold great value for the corporate world. So, it’s no wonder business leaders and human resource professionals are taking a keen interest in this work. They are looking for answers that will help them remain calm, creative and innovative during tense situations.

Dr Pawliw-Fry says there’s an important reason why many of us shut down when the going gets really tough. It’s not the person shutting down; it’s the brain, literally.

He says the brain will cut back on working (short-term) memory whenever a situation is making us feel uncomfortable or unnaturally tense. While the brain normally boasts between five and seven bytes of working memory, under a pressure situation, this will be reduced to just one or two.

“In trying to protect us, the brain decreases working memory,” Dr Pawliw-Fry says. The logic behind it is to narrow our choices to the most obvious options.

To try and work through every possible scenario would be far too time-consuming so the brain closes up and demands an immediate solution. It wants you to fight, flee or freeze.

Now that may make sense when there is an immediate threat to our lives or the lives of our loved ones, but why narrow choices for less fatal business decisions?

Given the amount of investment everyone place in their work now, the brain gives job- and organisation-related issues a similar priority to family ones, and therefore places the same restrictions on brain power at what can be the most inopportune times. It wants to protect our jobs as much as our lives.

In this way, what the brain considers as “pressure” manifests itself in different ways. Where once it may have been a bear attack that triggered this impulse, today it can be as simple as having to work with difficult people, or meeting a strict deadline.

“People get so afraid, because they want to do a good job,” Dr Pawliw-Fry says. “But under that pressure, there’s no way you can be as innovative.”

The short answer

So what can business leaders, or indeed anyone, do about this situation? Dr Pawliw-Fry says the answer is simple, but can be harder to put into practice. He says individuals each have a “default” setting which they most often revert to in times of pressure, typically relating to one of the “fight”, “flee” or “freeze” options.

It’s not something people necessarily need to change, he says. Rather, simply recognising the default behaviour can be enough to pull ourselves out of it when it rears its head.

“The real question is what the impact of the default behaviour is,” he says. “When you understand that, you have a chance to manage your brain more effectively.”

Sports and business

Dr Pawliw-Fry’s lessons aren’t just valuable to the business environment, he’s also found an eager audience in the high-pressure world of professional sport.

He says the oft-cited reports of teams or individual athletes that fold under pressure are no cliché. Rather, there are some very real and varying examples of more skilled players being unable to function as well when the rewards are unusually big, or the scoreline is unusually tight.

He cites his own passion for the international Rugby Union, and his favourite team, the New Zealand All Blacks. “They were clearly the most outstanding performers, in any sport, for a long time,” he says. “Yet out of five or six World Cups, they could only win one.”