How To Improve Your Leadership Under Pressure
Have you ever lost your cool in way that had negative consequences? Have you ever read/misread a comment from a subordinate and completely over-reacted in your immediate response? Have you ever sent and email meticulously expressing your indignation in response to a co-workers email or actions only to regret it later? I have. In most cases, your response has a negative impact on the individual and, by association, your team. Your effectiveness and reputation as a leader is determined by how you perform under pressure. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said, “Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.” That reputation will either magnify or diminish the productivity of your team.
Let me give you a painful personal experience. Several years ago, I was working for a leadership development company. There had been several major leadership changes since I had joined the company. At the time, I was meeting with the third CEO the company had employed in the 4 years I’d been there. The company was struggling during the last great recession, like many companies. I had been asked to help increase sales. My new title, which was company specific, meant nothing to potential clients.
To help our business growth, the CEO asked if I would change it and use the title of Associate Vice President. I had not sought the change, but felt it would help develop new business. Shortly after this meeting, the CEO was fired. We operated for several months after that with no CEO. One day, I was working in my office and I heard our senior HR Director, who had been with the company for almost 20 years, talking to employees outside my office. “Did you hear that Spencer changed his title to assistant Vice President? Can you believe it?!” This went on for a few minutes and she came into my office and began to express her displeasure with what she thought to be a self-serving power grab on my part. She said, “Why did you change your title to Assistant Vice President, are you ashamed of the other title?” I said the new title was actually Associate Vice President and I was not ashamed of the old title. I was doing my best to stay calm.
She continued, “Why don’t you just call yourself President, we don’t have one of those?” She finally left my office and I was doing my best to not get fully hijacked and angry. As she left my office, she began calling out to other sales people on the sales floor. “HEY DAVE, WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR TITLE TO BE?” By this time, I had left my desk and was standing in the doorway of my office watching this happen. Finally, I had had enough! Her behavior was absolutely inappropriate. I felt I HAD to address the injustice. I walked up to her and we began to argue. I knew she was a confident tough woman with many years of experience and not intimidated. I felt justified in addressing the situation directly and powerfully!
Her behavior, however inappropriate, did not justify my confronting her on the sales floor where several other employees looked on in horror. We were supposed to be two examples of leadership, motivation and enthusiasm. What they got instead was discomfort and a loss of respect for both of us.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking of all the ways you would have responded more appropriately. When I was no longer in the frustrating moment, and thinking clearly, I too could think of so many better responses. The key is to be able to do this when you are in in the foxholes and trenches of daily business.
Think of challenges you currently face. Maybe the challenges are recurring. The way you respond to things that happen determines your outcomes. When you are under pressure your ability to think clearly is impaired. There are ways to manage this. Under these conditions, you may not be getting the results you intend. In these situations, different leaders may react differently causing different challenges. The following are some examples of challenging behaviors under pressure:
- Some leaders may intimidate others because of their intensity. Their demanding nature can divide people and teams. Inflexible and controlling behavior can lead to unrealistic expectations. These leaders can be overly sensitive to being disrespected or embarrassed. They constantly think about what they want to say next, instead of truly listening.
- Some leaders may find difficulty focusing under pressure. They may have a compulsive need to be heard and popular, basing decisions on personal benefit, rather than what is expedient. This is fueled by a fear of embarrassment or rejection, which is exaggerated under pressure.
- Other leaders may avoid conflict. They sometimes procrastinate managing and/or terminating difficult relationships or making difficult decisions. Their indecision causes pain for the whole team.
- Another leader may get paralyzed by perfectionism, or be overly critical. They may fear being caught without the answer, focusing on what can go wrong.
These are just a few examples of your behavioral blind spots.
Scholars of leadership studies and organizational consultants, Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas have been researching what makes an effective leader. They have concluded, “…the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” (The Crucibles of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, September, 2002)
Here are some things, which can help you avoid my earlier mistakes and become a stronger more effective leader:
When you find yourself in moments of tension, you may experience an amygdala hijack, which I won’t explain in detail here. In short, fight or flight takes over and your ability to reason is seriously impaired. Your behavior and decisions are controlled by your limbic system (emotions), instead of your neo-cortex (logic). This is why we can repeat the same poor behavior again, and again. Here are a few suggestions to regain control of your neo-cortex and overcome your challenging behavior:
Interrupt your pattern:
Interrupt your episode. Break your typical pattern. Focus on something else or walk away. Walking away is meant to be a temporary solution. Some people are actually good at walking away; the problem is they don’t address the issue. When you walk away, plan a time to reconvene with the person or people you were meeting with to address the situation more powerfully and effectively. Think of a child having a temper tantrum. Perhaps you asked your small child to get dressed and they start kicking and screaming. Interrupt that pattern by saying something like “What is your favorite flavor of ice-cream?” Or, “Where did you put your favorite toy?” This will interrupt their episode and function to reengage the logic center of their brain. The same can work for you. Find a way to interrupt yourself. Just getting up and moving away can help. If you are having difficulty staying in control of your emotions, ask if you can get back together in a couple of hours or the next day.
Just breathe, when you are frustrated or angry, notice you are probably not breathing. Oxygen breaks down the hormones, which are released when you are frustrated, angry or upset such as adrenaline, and the stress hormone cortisol. Learn how to diaphragmatically breathe. Slow down and breathe deeply. It takes 3-4 hours to completely clear these hormones from your system. As a leader, you don’t have the luxury of this recovery time. When you breathe deeply, you will interrupt your pattern, and you can help reduce the hormones from your bloodstream in 15-20 minutes. Cortisol increases your heart rate and hardens arteries. If allowed to persist, it can cause hypertension and heart disease and a suppressed immune system. It also causes weight gain and belly fat. Think of how often in a day you may be getting frustrated angry or upset. In addition to impairing your ability to lead effectively and make good decisions, you are negatively impacting your health, and hurting your team/effectiveness. Learn to recognize when you are not breathing and breathe deeply and slowly.
Strengthen feelings of gratitude:
This is a step that you may consider touchy feely, however, it can have a powerfully positive impact. You could be may be grateful for the birth of a child, an enduring relationship, or help you received during a difficult time, etc. Gratitude is a very strong emotion and can counter negative feelings and emotions. However, you need to identify something you are so grateful for that you will feel a change of emotion immediately. If it is not working, you need to identify a more powerful event.
Let me share my gratitude story: When I was 18, my mother was diagnosed with bone cancer. This was a follow-up to breast cancer she had ten years earlier. This time the doctors gave her six months to live. She was single, a mother of four, and a schoolteacher. When she gathered the family to share the news, she declared that we would live as normally as we could. In a few months, when I turned 19, we were planning for me to leave and serve an 18-month mission that was an important part of my faith. When I left, it was very difficult, I did not know if I would see my mother again. I was called to serve in Rome, Italy. Sharing my faith with the good people of Italy was not easy. I would write to my mother and complain how hard it was. She encouraged me to love the people more. In her letters to me, she never complained of her pain. She was always encouraging.
Towards the end of my mission, my mother was still living. However, she took a turn for the worse and I was called home to help. At twenty years of age, I was assigned to be the executor of my mother’s estate. I came home on a Thursday and doctors thought she would not survive the weekend. She turned out to live another six months. This was a tender mercy. I cannot think about these experiences without incredible gratitude. My feelings of gratitude cause my feelings of frustration and anger instantly dissipate. The key is to practice gratitude daily so, it can be easily retrieved in moments of tension.
When you feel hijacked, learn to ask open-ended questions to learn more about the situation. Here are a few examples: “Help me understand….”, “What is the source, or cause of…”, “How can we more effectively….”, “What are the potential outcomes of….”. When you ask open-ended questions, you are engaging the logic center of your brain. This helps to interrupt patterned responses (yours and others) to improve your outcomes.
Understand your blind spots:
As a leader, you must take the time to understand your behavioral tendencies. I am sure you have had behavioral surveys and 360 reviews in your career. What did you do with the information? Maybe you were impressed with the accuracy, laughed, and blithely filed the report away with the rest of your behavioral assessments. You must take the time to understand what to do with the information. Maximize your strengths and learn what to do about the behavior, which is holding you, back. If you have read any of my other articles about emotional intelligence, I have recommended getting a behavioral survey. Take it to the next step. Work with a certified professional or coach to help you understand the ramifications of your behavior.
If your behavior as a leader has had an impact you did not intend like I have, there is hope. Learning how to be a more effective leader in moments of tension takes some work and practice. Practice the behaviors and responses you desire when you are calm. Do not get discouraged if you do not respond the way you practiced. Keep working at it. The benefits to your reputation as a leader are unbelievable. You will be creating an environment, and culture, where your team, your employees and your direct reports will thrive and be more productive. Your heart will also thank you.
Let us help you improve your emotional intelligence and your leadership under pressure. Click here to take our leadership and communciation behavioral assessment and a schedule a free analysis.
For more information on the subject you consider the following articles: What Is Innattentional Blindness Costing You?; One Reason We Struggle With Emotional Intelligence…; How Asking Questions Strengthens Your Team; Cure For The CEO Disease
The author, Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC.