The Danger Of High-Pressure Focus

By Bill Stainton

On December 29, 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing more than 100 passengers and crew members. That, of course, would be tragic under any circumstances. What makes this incident doubly tragic, though, is that the accident was entirely preventable. In fact, had the story had a happier outcome, the cause of the crash would have been almost laughable.

So why did Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crash?
Because the two pilots were too busy trying to change a burned out light bulb to notice that the autopilot had been disengaged and that the plane was flying itself into the ground.

There’s a condition known as cognitive tunneling, which is defined as “an inattentional blindness phenomenon where one becomes hyper-focused on some variable other than the present environment.” Have you ever seen someone at a downtown intersection (or been that someone) who is so focused on texting a friend that they literally walk out into moving traffic? That’s cognitive tunneling.

Cognitive tunneling is particularly prevalent in high-pressure situations. When the pressure is low, most of us have enough mental firepower to notice things that aren’t related to our current task. We hear the phone ring, we smell food cooking in the microwave, we notice the cat walking along the top of a fence just outside the window (that literally just happened as I was writing this, by the way; it was an orange cat). In other words, we’re aware of our environment.

In a high-pressure situation, though, our bandwidth decreases. We can become hyper-focused on one particular task to the exclusion of all else. This can be okay when the task we’re focused on is the most important task at the moment. It can be dangerous, though – perhaps even fatal – when the task being focused on is actually less important than the tasks that are being neglected.

Like when your focus is on changing a light bulb rather than flying the plane.

So how do you keep this from happening?
Two words will be your best friends in this situation: awareness and delegation.

By awareness, I mean awareness of what is the most important task at hand. The most important task for the pilot of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was to fly the airplane. Instead, he got distracted by the bright shiny object (or, in this case, the lack of a bright shiny object). When you find yourself in a high-pressure situation, ask yourself, “What is the most important thing for me to focus on right now?” And… empower at least one person on your team to check you on this. If they see you cognitively tunneling down the rabbit hole, they need to be empowered to slap you (figuratively, of course) and ask you the same question: “What is the most important thing for you to focus on right now?”

Yes, there will be other things that need attention. But they don’t necessarily need your attention! This is where delegation comes in. Your job, as the leader, is to recognize what is paramount and what is secondary, and then to delegate the secondary to other people. Remember: you don’t have to (nor should you) change every light bulb!

In a high-pressure situation, focus is good. But focus on the wrong thing can take you down.