As a Leader, Are You Clueless about Pressure?

JP Pawliw-Fry

As a Leader, Are You Clueless about Pressure?

A CEO of a financial services company felt pressure from the Board to grow the company by winning major, multi-million dollar clients. The CEO instituted a new process for his team, whereby he labeled any prospect over 150 million dollars a "must win" deal and insisted that he be brought in to play a significant role in each of these big deals to help "close" them.  While he had very good intentions when he instituted this process, it didn’t help his team at all. Everyone felt even more pressure than usual and, as a result, their performance suffered. Team members were afraid to make a mistake and look bad in front of the CEO, and they felt like he was doubting  that they could close the deals without his involvement. The result? They could sense his anxiety around each prospective big deal and, given that emotions are infectious, they tightened up.  Under this intense pressure, they ended up losing more deals than they won. This type of situation happens all of the time in workplaces across all industries.

As a training and performance expert at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), I've become completely shocked and disheartened at just how clueless most managers and leaders are when it comes to pressure. They have no idea about pressure’s destructive effect on their teams, how pressure negatively changes their behavior and how that behavior can damage the people around them.

It is deeply disturbing because so many people in organizations today are feeling increasing amounts of pressure, and  most of these people are being led by mangers or leaders who simply don’t understand the impact of pressure in the workplace.  If they used a more scientific approach to managing pressure, their teams would perform better and achieve their goals more effectively.

IHHP studied 12,000 managers and leaders from around the world and one of our principle findings is that most take a haphazard approach to pressure. They don’t use what some of the best neuroscience or sports sciences tells us about pressure, nor do they use best practices - some of the learnable skills available to them - in managing pressure.  They use the approaches and behaviors modeled for them by their parents, teachers, and coaches or previous managers. This might be helpful and serve them but it also might not. For instance, if their models did not use an effective approach to managing pressure,  then it's highly unlikely that they're going to use an effective approach to pressure themselves.

As a senior leader, here are some things to remember about pressure:

  • Have faith in your team.  The people who report to you wouldn’t have gotten to the positions they're in if didn’t possess a certain level of conscientiousness, intelligence and pride in their work. They want to do well. Your people are already putting enormous pressure on themselves to succeed; you don’t need to add to it.
  • Don't feel the need to "hype up" the situation.  I work with a variety of professional athletic coaches - including Olympic athletes' coaches and NBA coaches.  In big matches, whether at Olympics or in a finals situation, their job is not to give the big speech to ‘hype’ or ‘motivate’ their team to ‘win it all’, it is to do just the opposite. These players, like your team, care an enormous amount about succeeding. They have a lot of pride. The coaching is about helping them keep perspective about their performance and reminding them to be focused on integrity of inputs as opposed to getting too attached to outcome.

Know that your emotions are infectious. Research conducted jointly at Harvard Business and Medical Schools found that within 30 seconds, a leader’s emotions will infect their team, whether negatively or positively. Whether you like it or not, you set the tone for your team and your organization so take ownership of it. Do your work around managing emotions more intelligently so that you have the kind of positive impact you want to have and your team needs you to have.