Keeping calm under pressure according to a NASA flight director

NASA flight director Paul Hill explained his strategies for staying calm when his job stakes elevate, and his tactics can easily translate to other industries.

Photo: Robert Sullivan via Flickr

As far as high-pressure workplaces go, it’s tough to think of a stronger example than the flight department at NASA. Directing shuttle launches and managing flights from mission control don’t leave much room for error, and NASA leaders need to keep a cool head and take every step possible to prevent snap decisions made out of stress.

In a recent interview with Business Insider, NASA flight director Paul Hill explained his strategies for staying calm when his job stakes elevate, and his tactics can easily translate to other industries.

1. Instead of letting emotions distract you, stay focused on the facts at hand.

When a work situation becomes tense and difficult, it’s easy to let your personal feelings and the reactions of others involved influence the way you handle the issue. But according to Hill, the best way to power through an anxiety-inducing problem involves honing your attention into data and objective facts.

During the 2001 launch of the Discovery shuttle from the International Space Station, one of Hill’s controllers realized that one of the shuttle’s cooling loops – which keeps the spacecraft’s temperature level and allows the computer systems within to function – had malfunctioned. The flight crew needed to solve the problem in a short period of time, lest they risk a faulty launch and the potential loss of human life. With such enormously-high stakes, the mission control team needed a clear and effective strategy to resolve the issue without the complications often prompted by stress. Luckily, NASA trains its employees on thought processes that remove nervousness from the equation.

In the aforementioned instance, Hill encouraged his crew to turn their focus toward the data streaming in from the shuttle’s systems, believing that prioritizing unimpeachable facts would help everyone remain at attention. “Everybody tends to become more focused and more calm as they’re working through the data, talking to each other, talking to the flight director on the voice loops, and making decisions,” he explained. Ultimately, the NASA mission control crew successfully launched Discovery, largely thanks to their ability to keep working through tense circumstances.

2. When thinking and talking through a stressful situation, make sure you’re asking the right questions.

On-the-job stress has an uncanny way of bringing up trains of thought that prove less than helpful. When this problem arises at NASA, leadership urges staffers to focus on a series of questions that get to the heart of the matter without superfluous and distracting tangents. “As an old boss of mine said, ‘That first indication that you have a crisis is probably not when you want to go and jump out the window,’ ” Hill told Business Insider, following with this piece of advice: “Get a little bit more information, we can always panic later.”

In the case of the Discovery launch, Hill’s list of questions included the following:

  • What was everything they knew — and did not know — about the situation at hand?
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand?
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation?

Keeping the discussion and the thought process impersonal and fact-based proved crucial to finding an expedient solution, and professionals in all fields can use this technique to reduce complications and discover a beneficial answer as quickly as possible.

3. Don’t assume that past successes will apply to future circumstances.

When coaching his NASA team, Hill warns them against making decisions based on past outcomes. “Where you get in trouble is some bad thing starts happening and you feel the urge to start taking action. You say, ‘Hey, I’ve been in this situation before. This is what we did the last three times. It’s always worked so I’m going to do it again,’ ” Hill claimed.

Rather than blindly using a method you’ve tried before to solve a new problem, you’ll be better served by looking at the facts and nuances of the specific matter at hand and designing a new game plan tailored to the needs of this particular issue.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.