Under pressure – are you at risk of derailment as a leader?

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two

Puts people on the streets

Queen, Under Pressure

After roughly six years of blogging I am writing today for the first time in seven weeks – so much for writing at least one blog posting per week!

It’s been an intensive period.  I hope it means that our difficult economic climate is picking up a bit.  In my business, this means “delivery” – juggling client assignments, moving from one area of activity to another (coaching, leadership assessment, executive development…), travel (Stockholm, Munich, London…)

I am reminded of the insistent beat that underpins the song by Queen, Under Pressure.  It is powerful precisely because it mimics the heart under pressure, adrenalin-laden, without pause.  It’s a song that has often been in my mind in recent weeks.

Are you feeling the pressure?

If you’re taking time to read this article, you probably aren’t, right now, “under the cosh”.  At the same time, you’re probably all too familiar with feeling under pressure.

You know, too, that when times are tough – demanding or difficult, frantic or frightening, irritating or intense – you’re probably not at your best.  Whilst some people may claim to thrive under pressure, we all face kinds of pressure that we find hard.

You may even be thinking this:  that pressure is a way of life for you rather than a temporary event.  Or perhaps the pressure has been going on for so long that you’ve stopped noticing and you’re just getting on with it.

If it is, if you are, you may well be placing your health, your well-being and your performance (yes, your performance) at work at risk.

Coming off the rails

Morguefile steam train

As it happens, one of the things that has kept me busy in recent weeks has been working with a colleague to help upwards of 60 leaders understand their personal motives, values and behaviours – including the way they behave under pressure – using the Hogan suite of psychometric tests.

The thing is, we all have our own ways of feeling the pressure.

We all have our own ways of responding to the pressures we feel.

One of the reasons Hogan has established such a strong reputation at senior leadership levels is because these tests recognise that, under pressure, some of the behaviours that fuel our success can become strengths overplayed.

Suddenly, we’re at risk of derailment.

This is valuable information for organisations at the point of recruitment.  It’s also valuable for you to know in your role as a leader.  Wouldn’t you want to know if you’re at risk of derailment as a leader?

Have you noticed how, under pressure, you have a particular way of responding?  Have you even wondered why you respond in that way?  (And why others don’t?)

We feel the pressure most when we face situations that are like those we struggled with when we were very young.  And when we do, we are most likely to use strategies, quite unconsciously, that we adopted at a very early stage in our lives.

Arthur, for example, lost his job as a senior manager because he failed to manage his own patterns of behaviour when he followed his old boss to a new organisation.  Arthur respected his boss highly and they had worked well together.  In his new organisation, though, he reported indirectly to his old boss via a new line manager whom he found difficult and for whom he had little respect.  His old boss urged him to treat his line manager with respect and to recognise his long-standing contribution to the organisation and his power – however ill-founded – within it.

Arthur’s resentment started to build.  He quietly gave priority to assignments from his old boss over the tasks delegated to him by his new line manager.  Others, including his line manager, noticed the delays.  One day, without warning, his line manager called him into the office and told him that his services were no longer required.

It didn’t have to be that way for Arthur.  It doesn’t have to be that way for you.

Bringing a mindful approach when you’re under pressure

More than anything else, two things trigger our sense of feeling under pressure.

Firstly, we feel the pressure when something we experience is at odds with our most deeply held values.

Take a moment to think about this.  When was the last time you felt deep, deep emotion – be it anger, or love, irritation, or gratitude?  What happened to trigger the emotion?  What need was met?  Or violated?

Secondly, we feel the pressure when our own underlying confidence or self esteem is such that we worry about our performance.

Notice how you felt when you last made a mistake, for example, or when you feared you might make a mistake.  How did you feel, too, about the possibility, under pressure, that your staff might make mistakes?

How did you respond to your feelings?

It’s easy to buy the story you have in such moments, the thoughts that are triggered when we feel under pressure and all the feelings that come with them.  This is, after all, what Daniel Goleman has called the Amygdala hijack, when the pressure of the situation triggers all sorts of responses in one of the oldest parts of our brain.

It’s harder, much harder, to simply say hello to our thoughts and feelings… to notice what’s kicking off inside us and to give empathy to those parts of ourselves that are triggered and active at a particular moment in time.  To do this, is to begin to develop our emotional intelligence as leaders.

It’s harder still to notice how, in some situations, we are not alone in feeling the pressure.  Two people, feeling the pressure, can both behave from a place of stress rather than from a place of mindfulness.

Paying attention to how you respond when you’re under pressure and noticing what things are most likely to trigger this response opens up the possibility of managing your response, avoiding a derailment and becoming more effective in your role as a leader.

(Oh!  And yes, life becomes less stressful and more enjoyable, too.)

After the storm

Arthur, frustrated by his new line manager, confused the map with the territory.   He thought his view of his new boss was objective and indisputable and maybe he was even right.

What he failed to notice was his own pattern of thinking and his habitual responses.  What he also missed was the opportunity to choose a different – and more effective – response.

As I sit and write, I can feel huge empathy for Arthur.  Most people, at senior level, are at risk of derailment as a leader, though the form this can take varies from person to person.  What’s more, the strategies we develop in childhood, as ineffective as they are, can be hard to spot and harder still to change.

We do, though, get to choose.  Do we want to be aware?  To catch our patterns in action and begin the process of changing them?  Or to we prefer to say “It’s just who I am”?

This, though, opens up a whole new area for exploration…

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