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Managing the Pressure of Change

by JP Pawliw-Fry

Enough books have been written and enough information is available that, by now, most leaders and managers understand what they need to do to manage change in their organization. They understand the need to get buy-in, secure credible senior sponsors, persuade key influencers in the organization and communicate, communicate, communicate. Some of the more sophisticated leaders also understand the need to manage the grieving process that can come with change; that there will be an inevitable sense of loss that their people will experience when significant change occurs in their organization.

After spending seven years studying more than 12,000 people who face intense pressure, it has become clear to us: what managers and leaders need most are tools and insights about how to manage the pressure of change that can get in the way of the best laid plans to manage change.

What shocked us over the course of our multiyear study is that most individuals take a haphazard approach to managing the pressure of change. They don’t understand that there is an emerging science that is providing a better understanding of what happens to the brain under pressure or how pressure can significantly alter behavior. They don’t understand that there are insights that are being developed and used in the neurological and sports sciences that offer new approaches to help manage the pressure that comes with change.

A classic experiment by psychologists John Darley and C. Daniel Batson provides one of the clearest examples of how pressure can alter a behavior critical to change. Students at Princeton Theological Seminary unknowingly were part of the experiment. One morning, the students, presumed to be an ethical bunch given their field of study, were told they would be speak­ing across campus giving a lecture on the good Samaritan, the man who helps a stranger on the road while others, in­cluding a merchant, a Levite, and a priest, pass the beaten and robbed man by and leave him for dead.

What the students did not know was this: There was no appoint­ment to lecture across campus. The researchers were interested in seeing who would stop and help a needy student on their way. They wondered, in a contemporary setting, what variables influenced helping behaviors such as offering assistance.

To test their hypothesis, they planted a man slumped in a doorway, coughing, groaning and in distress, on the path the students would travel. It would be very obvious to the students passing by that this man needed help. Half of the group were told that they were run­ning late for their lecture or sermon, the other half were told that they were on time. In other words, the experimenters put half the students in a pres­sure situation.

Of those students who were on time, who did not feel under time pressure, 63 percent stopped to help the man in distress. Of the group who were told they were running behind schedule, only 10 percent stopped to help. Some fraz­zled students literally stepped over the victim on their way to the next building! Many of the subjects who did not stop appeared disturbed and anxious when they arrived, perhaps because they were in conflict between helping the victim and their appointment.

What can we learn from this study?

First, pressure can have far ranging and powerful effects. It can disrupt an individual’s best intentions, whether it’s 90% of divinity school students who chose not to help someone in distress because of pressure, or a leader who has been trained to properly manage change but fails to execute on it because of pressure. A good example of this is the simple act of listening and tuning in. While it’s clear that stopping long enough to listen is one of the most important activities a manager needs to do to manage change, many don’t. What they need is not more lecturing on how to listen but more tools to manage the pressure that is keeping them from doing so.

So what to do?

  • Become a student of human behavior. Learn how pressure affects your brain and your behavior. Make it a habit of doing your own ‘post-briefs’ (you can also do this with your teams). We do this with athletes after the Olympic Games and with leaders after significant events. We have them go back and clinically analyze how pressure affected the ‘Big 5’: emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, behaviors and performance. This can be invaluable as it provides a different kind of feedback. After doing it a few times, patterns become obvious. You start to see what led to better performances:  the right amount of physiological arousal, the type of thinking that is best for you, or the situations that led to your not listening as well as you could have. Pressure affects everyone a bit differently which is why you need to work to gain personal insights.  You can then use this information next time you’re under pressure, to put yourself in the best position to perform.
  • Change how you view the physical sensations in your body.  One of the biggest differentiators of athletes who perform closer to their capability under pressure from those who do not is how they see the change in their body that pressure brings. Some feel the butterflies and sweaty palms and say to themselves: “I’m nervous.” Others feel the same sensations and say to themselves: “I’m excited”. It may seem small but the difference is significant. It changes brain chemistry (specifically the adrenaline/noradrenaline ratio) and it has a huge impact on behavior and performance. With more adrenaline, you approach the situation versus avoiding it. This not only affects your ability to perform the specific task at hand but it also impacts the people around you. They feed off of your approach and gain more confidence in you and in the change process you are undertaking. Often, the success of a change process takes a long time to reap benefits.  It requires maintaining confidence in the middle of a situation when it ‘can feel like failure’ but is anything but. Confidence of a leader is critical at these junctures which is why it is imperative that they use a less haphazard approach to pressure.

The good news is that unlike IQ – which is concrete after age 16 and doesn’t change significantly after this age – learning tools to manage pressure is something that can be developed at any stage of a manager’s or leader’s career path. With a systematic approach and some courage to really look at yourself, you can develop the tools that will help you walk into your next change situation with more confidence.

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