Executive Search: Assessing Performance Under Pressure

15 November, 2022

Antti Lahtinen, HRS Advisors Oy ( (Finland)

The world has become a stressful place, full of global economic shocks, an ongoing health crisis, and the great resignation, quiet quitting and quiet firing have all led to concerns about how people manage stress and take control of stressful situations. Even something basic like approaching colleagues at their desks unannounced, what’s now being called desk-bombing, gets people to react in an anxious and troubled way. Are we really in control of our lives or are we falling apart under stress?

We constantly find ourselves in hectic work situations, whose intensity is causing alarming stress-related responses. Recruiters and assessors are extremely interested in avoiding these behaviors, making the stress resilience of top performers a crucial factor in the hiring process.

How to get started as a recruiter and measure stress management skills in candidates?

Measuring performance under pressure is not a simple endeavor, and one of the critical challenges is to define what it means to perform under stress, on the job. This requires a holistic approach that takes many different variables into consideration.

Step 1: Understanding Stress and Questions to Ask Candidates

To start out, creating a set of questions is a simple but powerful way to overcome the challenge of identifying what stresses people.

Here are a few examples:

  • Your definition of stress vs the candidate’s definition of stress?
  • Is stress momentary or chronic, an observable behavior or rather a state of mind?
  • What are the common sources of stress in the job the candidate is seeking: tight schedules, unclear responsibilities, and expectations, etc.?
  • Are there tools provided by the organization to help cope with stress? Does the candidate have the necessary competencies to utilize those resources?
  • Does motivation act as a “stress buffer”? If so, how to measure it?

Since human behavior is highly complex, each question brings up further questions. That leaves us with one question: is there anything that we can reliably conclude about stress and performance when recruiting top talent?

Step 2: Studying the Job and Work Environment

It’s important to remember that most days, stress isn’t autogenerated but triggered, making it important to identify the potential triggers in the workplace. This requires a solid understanding of the employee’s experience within the organization. Which are the key triggers in the position and what key resources are available to help cope with stress? Are there specific traits or competencies required to utilize them?

Additionally, it’s critical to check with the employer about what performance under stress means inside their organization: is management monitoring stress levels in some way? If not, which other means does the organization use to assess employee performance and stress levels?

Based on these fundamentals, it is possible to find out if your candidate has faced similar stressful situations in the past and has experience in using resources that help manage such circumstances.

Here’s what to ask:

  • Describe a stressful period in your previous role and what helped you to perform under pressure.
  • When you are under pressure, do your colleagues notice a different behavior in you?
  • Imagine a stressful work task and describe the measures you’d take to tackle it.

Step 3: Using Professional Assessment Tools 

Finally, psychological assessments can be utilized to get a general idea of the candidate’s performance under stress. According to research, neuroticism, one of the “big five” traits, is documented to correlate with how intensely one experiences stressful stimuli and consequently, how it may affect work performance.

In conclusion, there are methods that can help us get a glimpse of a candidate’s potential performance under stress, remembering that what may appear as performance under stress in one environment does not necessarily translate to other environments where different challenges are present. It also reminds us that “performance under stress” is not just an individual trait but rather takes form in interactions between the individual and their environment. The task for employers and recruiters is to identify what circumstances create stress in the first place.

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