Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 128
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Heart of the Pep Talk

Researchers demonstrate performance benefits for preparatory information in high stress settings.

If you've had the misfortune to hear the words "You need surgery" from your doctor in the last few years, then you've experienced both a severe jolt of stress, and the newest technique to relieve it: preparatory information. Most likely, your doctor handed you printed information which told you what to expect, how you might feel about it, and what you could do to help yourself.

Doctors used to withhold information following the logic that what you didn't know couldn't hurt you. "Trust me, and I'll worry for both of us" they'd say. Then a series of research studies proved that patients provided with information prior to surgery of all types fared much better than patients who trusted their doctors and knew nothing. Physicians noticed the research finding and changed their practices.

Carolyn Inzana, of the Florida Maxima Corporation in Winter Park, also noticed these studies and suspected the same effects could be achieved in other high-stress settings, particularly job settings, so she assembled a research team and found a willing experimental site, the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando.

Next, she studied preparatory information efforts of others, identified their necessary features, and devised an experiment which compared the effects of giving or withholding preparatory information to enlisted personnel in a training exercise in decision making. The exercise was part of the standard curriculum and simulated an important and potentially dangerous task, identifying and evaluating radar contacts. She expected to discover positive effects, but the results of her experiment exceeded her expectations.

Preparatory information satisfies three needs for people as they begin a high stress job. It identifies events they're likely to encounter: loud noises, frequent interruptions, accelerated demands. It identifies the effects these events are likely to have: lapses of concentration and more frequent errors. Third, it labels the physical and emotional sensations people likely will experience: elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, muscle tension, fear, frustration, and confusion. Finally, it offers suggestions to overcome the effects of stress in the job setting, for example, focusing attention on a small group of critical factors and ignoring other, less critical factors, and reminding oneself that stress reactions are normal.

Inzana divided the sailors into 2 groups and assigned them to either a high stress or a normal stress training program. Next, she divided them again and showed a video tape giving preparatory information to half of the young people in each class. All the sailors then completed the training program.

The preparatory tape made a big difference for those who saw it.

Sailors who viewed the tape and completed the fast paced, high stress training exercise experienced less stress than those who did not see it. They also reported greater confidence in their performance. Sailors in both the high stress and normal stress classes performed more accurately if they'd seen the tape, but the difference was most pronounced in the high stress classes. Finally, speed was not affected. Sailors in the fast paced class did not accelerate or retard their performance simply because they viewed the preparatory tape. They worked at the same pace, but were more accurate and experienced less stress.

More accuracy and less stress . . .

When are your people in the greatest danger of making bad mistakes? Perhaps, it is during high stress periods when demands come thick and fast? Could you make a tape patterned after Carolyn Inzana's effort? To do so, you need to answer three questions: What can your people expect to happen? What physical and emotional reactions will likely hit them? What do you want them to do to manage both themselves and the work that needs to be done?

Real life is full of distractions that amplify stress. Preparatory information appears to reduce distractions by warning people to expect them; and when they appear, they're more quickly dispatched and attention is more promptly redirected to the task. It's something we could all do for our people.

Reference: Inzana, Carolyn M., James E. Driskell, Eduardo Salas, and Joan H. Johnston (1996). Effects of Preparatory Information on Enhancing Performance Under Stress. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81 (4), 429-435.

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