Remaining calm when pressure goes sky high

Written by
Peter Lowe

08 Jun 2016

08 Jun 2016 • by Peter Lowe

Under pressure

Whether we like it or not, as human beings we’re emotional creatures. Even when things are going right, when you hit the commercial target, win the pitch or successfully attract a rising star to the team, it can be an emotional rollercoaster. But your calm exterior can sometimes hide the real truth; the nagging doubts of ‘can I really handle it?’ syndrome, the fear of letting others and yourself down. 

It can be lonely at the top, but these feelings aren’t reserved for high-flying CEOs or leaders of stature. Where there is responsibility there is pressure, and where there is talent, inevitably comes responsibility. It all creates a highly charged melting pot of emotions that we often don’t even realise we have. As a leader, how you act under pressure is detrimental to the whole team’s performance.

Emotions form a critical part of our daily lives. They are intrinsic to our relationships, our behaviour and how we’re perceived by others. Historically, society has dictated that showing emotion is inherently a sign of weakness – especially as it flies in the face of the notion of the ‘alpha male’. Studies and experience show, however, that emotional honesty is a strength. Alex Ferguson has stated that it is good to sometimes lose your temper, but it is important to understand how far you can go before causing lasting damage.

When the heat is on, how do you keep a cool head?

So what happens when you’re up against it in a volatile situation at work that could send the pressure gauge sky high? Members of the team have had a concentration lapse that has resulted in a big issue for a client and you’re ultimately responsible as the departmental head.  Suddenly you’re at the top of the emotional tree with no idea how to get down safely. Are your intentions clear before you blast into that room to address colleagues? Do you know how you’re going to react and is it in keeping with your everyday behaviour or are you erratic and disconnected with the mode of ‘normality’? Before you storm in to deal with the situation, ask yourself the following searching questions:

1.    Do you understand the leader you really are? Does this style change under pressure and, if so, how do you know when it is beginning to happen? Are you the authentic leader who has big ears to listen and read a situation or do you have an ego and sharp tongue that pressurises others?
2.    Consider how disappointing it must be, demoralising even, when your employees see their leader’s “story” change. It seems like their duty of care dissolves and their power and strength of leadership takes on a different path of influence when emotions cannot be regulated. From the “dream maker” to the “dream breaker” in short emotional moments!

3.    Are you able to gravitate towards previous positive actions in moments of exceptional pressure? This vital reflection before acting allows your intentions to be clear and, importantly, leaves others with choice.

4.    Can you rise above personal disappointment (and out of the ‘red mist’ of anger that often comes from lack of control) so that both intentions and the decision-making process are clear?

5.     Do you relish the challenge of pressure? Carson* (2013) refers to football managers, city analysts and soldiers who view pressure as integral to managing their careers.

Great leaders are inspirational, though it’s important to note that inspiration is not a one-time something but an all-time everything. Strong leaders have a ‘magnet effect’ drawing others to them. They are authentic and believe in their philosophy even when the pressure is on. They have developed self-awareness and maintain great self-belief. Team members are lifted by their energy, drive and ability to make decisions as well as being a rock to lean on when needed. My experience has fortunately allowed me to spend time around leaders of great consistency. A defining factor of such leaders is their ability to regulate their emotions, even under the most arduous of pressures, so this heavy burden of responsibility isn’t imposed on others.

Avoiding irrational behaviour

When faced by adversity, it’s useful to have a reserve of tools to manage the situation and ‘take your emotional temperature’ to ensure you stay in check and remain consistent in your approach as a leader:

1.    Prevent self-enforcement of pressure by being prepared for the moment.  Don’t leave things to the last minute and let unwanted emotions build up. 
2.    Ensure your own personal expectations and those you have of others are what they should be. It prevents the unwanted trigger of disappointment.
3.    Focus on what you need to do, not what others have done before you. Concentrating on negatives helps to foster a negative mindset. Your emotional focus needs to be centred on positives. You will have in your ‘mindset bank account’ positive experiences that help you in these moments. Find them!
4.    Ensure Positive thoughts come to the fore at the most challenging moments. Our emotions are driven by our thoughts. Self-doubt issues become immense hurdles at moments of pressure so don’t let them magnify and dominate your mind.
5.    Remain conscious of your thoughts and behaviours and be fully present. Self-awareness brings a greater perspective that stops you turning down the cul-de-sac of irrational, and potentially damaging behaviour and ensures you remain calm and consistent

*Source - The Manager: Inside the minds of football’s Leaders; Carson (2013); Bloomsbury