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By Kristin Scroggin, CEO at genWhy Communications

Retaining employees who are productive and creative can be contingent on their ability to handle pressure in all kinds of circumstances, including when they’re besieged by oncoming deadlines. Yet, all too often public sector employers don’t even begin to try to understand whether applicants are capable of that, and that can be a big mistake.

As a college professor for 17 years, I was accustomed to a very similar song from my students. I would ask them how far they were into their semester-long project; they would simply ask “It’s not due for a few more months, right?” But as their due date approached, I would regularly check in and see if they had any questions about the project. More often than not, there were no questions because they had not started yet. Without fail, the night before the project was due, I would get multiple email questions from students in full panic mode.

When I asked them why they did this, I would often hear, “Oh, I just work better under pressure.”

But is that true, or do they only believe that because they chronically place themselves in a position where they have no other choice? An interesting interview with Tim Pychyl, procrastination expert and retired professor at Carleton University, states that stress makes it harder for your brain to function, burdening it with cognitive loads that can interfere with your ability to not only learn and assimilate knowledge, but translate ideas into meaningful information.

People under temporal pressure have been repeatedly shown to make more errors of omission (not doing or including something they should have) and commission (doing something but doing it wrong or poorly) than people working on a more protracted time scale.

 Some people may be led to put themselves under unnecessary pressure because of the lure of instant gratification. “Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be,” according to AsapSCIENCE’s Mitchell Moffit. “The further away the reward is, the more you discount its value. This is often referred to as present bias, or hyperbolic discounting.”

Moffit’s team observed brain patterns that suggest we think of our future selves like a person unknown to us. His findings imply that when we say we’re going to leave something for tomorrow, it’s almost like we’re leaving it for a stranger to do.

This is exacerbated by the fact that so much can happen “efficiently” today. We can cook a chicken in an Insta-pot for about 10 minutes – no longer do we need to wait for grandma’s secret recipe to simmer for eight hours on the stove.

There’s even research to show that our willingness to wait in any line at all has shrunken dramatically due to the constant technologies reducing our waits for basic items daily. This may mean that on projects where employees don’t see or haven’t been told what and when the reward for a job well done might occur, they may be more likely to put it off and risk missing a deadline altogether.

Like it or not, sometimes pressure is unavoidable

As I type this, I’m 35,000 feet in the air on my longest stretch of travel for 2023. Over 11 days I will have taken eight flights, been in seven different states (with a mini-break in Alaska during that time), given presentations to seven different clients and talked for more than 16 ½ hours total. It’s been a rough stretch, but as the old saying goes, “You gotta’ make hay while the sun shines.”

During my busy travel season, people often ask me, “How are you doing this?” My only response is, “I do it because I have to.” Granted, I have expensive tastes and love to vacation significantly more than the average person. Oh, and I have four kids who also have developed my expensive tastes, but that is why I’m willing to power through.

Over time, I’ve come to terms that the tradeoffs are reasonable for me and I recognize that I can withstand high pressure for a period – as long as I don’t have to withstand it all the time.

This is an important concept for you to discuss with employees because it is extremely stressful on the body and mind to live a life in which the pressure is never relieved.

It’s important to be clear with employees about how long their stressful stretches will be. With that established, it’s wise to force them to show exactly how they’ll handle the inevitable pressures when you interview them. Most of the people you ask in an interview setting will say they are organized and can handle deadlines. But why not have them show you what their method of planning looks like in the interview? Give them a list of things they would have to do, have them plan out how they would complete the list and then ask for an explanation of why they made their choices.

At genWHY, we have hundreds of “HR-approved” interview questions to help improve interviews, along with bi-monthly email tips to better attract and retain the next greatest generation. Just click here to get started.


The contents of this guest column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

#StateandLocalGovernmentHumanResources #StateandLocalWorkforceIssues #EmployeeRetention #EmployeeBurnout #EmployeeProstratination #PublicSectorHiring #PublicSectorEmployeeBurnout #genWHY #KristinScroggin #AsapSCIENCE #MitchellMoffit #TimPychyl



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