The Problem With Pressure

Do you ever struggle with all you are required to do, balancing life and career? When things are overwhelming, you start to create patterned responses or habits of thought and behavior that can hold you back in effectively fulfilling your duties. The mind rebels and wants to keep you safe in a comfort zone. It gives in to fear and doubt, it deletes, distorts and simplifies information. When this happens it limits your ability to respond effectively, or to change your approach if necessary.

Put another way, our ability to think clearly is diminished under pressure. The brain will revert to behavior that is most comfortable. Some of you may become belligerent and aggressive. Others can’t stop talking and may become sarcastic. Others avoid conflict and procrastinate. Some become obstinate as their need to be right causes them to dig their heels in. These patterned responses may show up unexpectedly and at/or inconvenient times. Some of your patterned responses have been developed over a life time and are very strong.

The first step in taking more responsibility and control over your patterned responses is to identify your behavioral traits. The increased awareness will help you begin to make better choices. Take a few moments to complete a quality behavioral assessment of your choice. Or I invite you to complete ProScan, one of the best behavioral surveys available click here. The first one is my gift to you. To take this assessment, you must be willing to review the results with me. This allows us to discuss some ways you can reject your patterned responses which may be holding you back.

Choose your response for better outcomes!

The author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC. Additional articles which may interest you: How To Improve Your Leadership Under PressureLeadership Is About Impact Not IntentionHow To Prepare Your Next Generation Of LeadersIncrease Your Effectiveness As A Leader With Perception Science;

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. Oxygenate:

    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.

  1. 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.

  1. Seek information:

    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.

  2. 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.

Sharpen Emotional Intelligence By Observing Others

My Emotional Intelligence Experiment

One strategy to increase emotional intelligence is to observe behavior in other people. I have found two places that I enjoy watching behaviors in people. One is in films and the other is at airports. Movies and television are a good place for me to identify behaviors that I recognize in myself. It seems that behaviors are often exaggerated for effect. This helps me  identify how people react under pressure. Then I can practice identifying behavior triggers that might affect me. I notice that I get uncomfortable in awkward or tense situations. My wife can always tell if I am getting nervous. If she is holding my hand, I heat up and she has to let go.

Hugh Grant
Hugh Grant

I also get fidgety and if I am watching television at home, I sometimes get up and go to the refrigerator for a drink which always elicits a laugh from her. It seems that the place I usually feel the most uncomfortable is during sitcoms or romantic comedy’s where the guy is making a fool of himself. Hugh Grant always makes me nervous because of his halting and nervous style. His stuttering in awkward moments can have an immediate impact on me. Over the past several weeks, I have made a conscious effort to pay attention to my feelings and reactions in movies and I have become more aware of my feelings and therefore am more able to manage how I react.

Linux-Babies-Angry_01Another place I like to watch people is at the airport. This is a great place to observe people under stress. Two weeks ago just after I had taken my emotional intelligence assessment, I traveled to Houston to conduct training for one of my clients. On my way home to Las Vegas, I was getting ready to board the plane. The customer service representative taking our boarding passes stopped a couple in front of me and told them that their carry-on was too large and would have to be checked. The man became irate and began shouting expletives. He said that he travels all the time with no problem carrying his bag on. He had gone into a full-blown emotional hijack. The representative was adamant that he must leave the bag at the end of the jet-way.  He continued down the jet-way swearing and proceeded to board the plane with his luggage ignoring the direction he had been given. This couple was assigned the seat right behind me. The man was visibly upset. His wife was consoling him and I heard him say, “I have to calm down”. I was pretty disgusted with his behavior. I really wanted to tell him what I thought. Instead I  suggested that he take deep slow breaths, which is one of the best ways to regain control of emotions. Oxygen helps fight the chemicals that flood our system when “fight or flight” kicks in. The more I observe people, the more I become aware of my own feelings increasing my ability to manage my emotions.

The next opportunity I had to observe people at the airport happened last Friday.  I was boarding a plane in Chicago on my way to Jackson, Mississippi. This time I was flying Southwest where you line up by number. I was seat A36 and the person who had A35 was right in front of me. As I stood in line I was profiling the other passenger in line just to practice. Soon, a well dressed woman who I guessed was a high dominant personality got in line next to and slightly in front of me. I noticed her boarding pass said she was A39 which should be behind me. Since I am also high dominant, I wanted to tell her to take a step back to her proper place in line. Instead I decided to hold my boarding pass so that she could see it. I wanted to see what she would do. I decided that no matter how she acted, I would not respond and let it go. She never looked around to see if she was lined up in the proper order. She stood firm in her spot and as we boarded she went right ahead of me. When I told my wife about this, who has a highly flexible and steady personality, she said “that person” used to be me. That was very hard for me to believe. I may have  a dominant personality, yet I thought I have been fairly aware and sensitive. Apparently not then, hopefully I am more aware now.

The last event happened Sunday on my way home from Jackson to Las Vegas. My itinerary said the flight was direct. I soon discovered we would stop in Houston and Los Angeles. I felt this was a bait and switch by the airline. When we arrived in LA, we were told that our flight was terminated and we would be rerouted on another flight three hours later. Apparently, hurricane Irene was to blame. Four people were on the original flight from Jackson. Each of us was anxious to get to Las Vegas sooner. We were told that there was a flight leaving in one hour that was full, however, we could go on standby. We arrived at the gate counter which was vacant. Soon many of the passengers that were waiting for our canceled flight begin to line up behind us. People were tense and I watched the frustration level rise from the front of the line. A gate operator came to the counter to call for help. He said to the people on the other end of the phone he needed help because an angry mob was lined up out the door and he was afraid for his life. The women next to me who had been on the flight from Jackson, said to me that she was offended that he was saying we were an angry mob. She thought we were calm and civil.

I was observing all these behaviors and I was doing a pretty good job staying relaxed and in control. I explained to the woman next to me, I was sure the gate operator only said those things so he would get a more immediate response from his supervisors. In essence, he was doing us a favor. The gate operator returned to the counter as the phone rang and he repeated the dire situation imploring them to send help immediately. When he hung up, he said he did that to get their attention. The woman looked at me and smiled. As it turned out, all five of us were able to get on the earlier flight and things worked out great given the circumstances.

If you have had similar experiences becoming more aware of your behavior or the behavior of others, please share them with me. If you have had experiences with me where I have been unaware of how I impacted you, I would like to hear about it, I think.