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When Managers Break Down Under Pressure, So Do Their Teams

Dec 17, 2018 | By Curated Content

Executive Summary

As a leader, how you respond under the pressure makes an indelible impression on the people around you. Research shows that your temperament in these crucial moments has a tremendous impact on your team’s performance, and ultimately, a large majority of managers and leaders buckle under pressure. There are a few simple skills that can help a leader be at their best even when the pressure is on. First, determine what you really want. Stop and ask yourself, “What is it I really want long term, for myself, for the contracting officer, and for the team?” Let that act as your North Star, guiding your  actions. Rather than angrily blaming the employee you perceive to be at fault, focus on problem solving. Try not to lead with emotions. Skilled leaders tamp down the temptation to level accusations, and gather the facts. Lastly, research shows that teams work harder and more effectively if a boss doesn’t lose their temper with them, so frame your intent in a way to get your team focused on solving the problem.

Anthony Lee/Getty Images

As a leader, much of what you do is relatively forgettable. We don’t mean to insult, but your routine actions on routine days are experienced by your direct reports as, well, routine.

But for non-routine days — the days when you are under the gun, feeling the heat, or pushed to your limits — how you respond under the pressure makes an indelible impression on the people around you. Our latest research shows that your temperament in these crucial moments has a tremendous impact on your team’s performance.

When the hammer comes down, are you calm, collected, candid, curious, direct, and willing to listen? That would be ideal, wouldn’t it? Or would your direct reports describe you as upset, angry, closed-minded, rejecting, or even devious?

We asked more than 1,300 people in an online survey to describe their leader’s style under stress and the impact of that behavior on their work. We found that a large majority of managers and leaders buckle under pressure. Specifically, respondents reported that, when under pressure:

  • 53% of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • 45% are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • 45% ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • 43% are more angry and heated than cool and collected.
  • 37% avoid or sidestep rather than be direct and unambiguous.
  • 30% are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest.

One executive we worked with was adamant and deliberate about creating a fun and supportive atmosphere where his team felt safe to try new things. He saw his role as supporting people and developing talent. And yet, to his surprise, most of his team labelled him a “jerk.” As we described a time when his team found him to be extra “jerky,” he said, “I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking I’m some sort of hypocrite. But I’m not. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m the fun, supportive guy I’ve described. It’s only five percent of the time when I lose my temper or forget what I should be doing and I say stupid things like that. Those statements are not an accurate reflection of who I am.”

And while his team agreed he was great 95 percent of time, this non-routine behavior left a lasting impression. His team felt it was those few moments — the five percent of moments when stakes were high, and the heat was on — that revealed the truth about who he really is.

And there’s more to the story. The research found that when leaders buckle under pressure, it doesn’t just hurt their influence, it also hurts their teams. Respondents said that when their leader clams up or blows up under pressure, their team members have lower morale; are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets, and quality standards; and act in ways that drive customers away.

Our research reinforced this. One out of three leaders were seen by their direct reports as someone who can’t talk or engage in dialogue when the stakes grow high. And when leaders fail to practice effective dialogue under stress, their team members are more likely to consider leaving their job than teams managed by someone who can stay in dialogue when stressed. Team members are also more likely to shut down and stop participating, less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities, more likely to be frustrated and angry, and more likely to complain.

A leader’s brash communication style also has a domino effect on team morale and psyche. One employee of a large multinational company told us that his direct leaders were terrible in high-stakes conversations, and the more he tried to speak up and engage, the more verbally violent his leaders became. He and his front-line colleagues grew increasingly silent. It was so bad that people adopted the attitude: “They pay me just enough not to leave, and I work just hard enough for them not to fire me.” They also adopted the saying, “$1000/week for hide and seek.” It wasn’t that they were just a little disengaged; they deliberately avoided management, contributed as little as they could get away with, and picked up their check at the end of each week.

Our research reinforced this. One out of three leaders were seen by their direct reports as someone who can’t talk or engage in dialogue when the stakes grow high. And when leaders fail to practice effective dialogue under stress, their team members are more likely to consider leaving their job than teams managed by someone who can stay in dialogue when stressed. Team members are also more likely to shut down and stop participating, less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities, more likely to be frustrated and angry, and more likely to complain.

You and Your Team Series

Communication

Let’s walk through an example to see how a few simple skills can help a leader be at their best even when the pressure is on. Imagine you’ve just come from a meeting with a customer, your boss, and your boss’s boss – and it didn’t go well. You thought your company’s agreement with the customer stipulated a 15-day order delivery. But that wasn’t what the contract actually specified. The timeframe was 10 days so you and your team have been missing the mark every time. Your boss and her boss were embarrassed and angry and as they left the meeting, put the onus on you to fix the situation ASAP. Now, you have to go back to your team, including the contract officer who originally misunderstood the contract, and get them to put in the evening and weekend work it will require to meet this week’s deadlines.

  • Determine what you really want. You’re humiliated and angry and you blame your contracting officer for the mistake. But before you allow your emotions to take over, stop and ask yourself, “What is it I really want long term, for myself, for the contracting officer, and for the team?” The answer to this question becomes your North Star, the purpose that guides your actions. In the moment, you might feel like proving to the contracting officer that you’re angry, but is that productive over the long term? Instead, focus on a positive destination like “Showing my best self” or “Making sure the team understands my appreciation for the sacrifice I’m going to ask them to make,” for example.
  • Challenge your story. It would be easy to make the contracting officer the villain. Not only does it sound plausible, but it would also make you blameless — a victim, even. You would feel justified in your anger. However, the best leaders challenge their stories. So you could ask, “Why might a rational, reasonable, and decent person make the mistake that she made?” and “What role did I have in allowing her mistake to go unnoticed and uncorrected?” These questions move us from angry judge to curious problem solver, and make us far more effective as leaders.
  • Start with facts. When we’re angry, we lead with our emotions, instead of with the facts. Skilled leaders tamp down the temptation to level accusations, and gather the facts. Specifically, focus on what you expected: the commitments, standards, policies, or targets that were missed. Then, add what you observed: the specific actions with dates, times, places, and circumstances as necessary. Don’t add your conclusions, opinions, or judgments. Because facts are neutral and verifiable, they become the common ground for problem solving.
  • Create safety. When you’re under pressure with your job or reputation on the line, how do you light a fire under your team without showing them your anger? Can you get your team to put in the overtime you’ll need from them without threatening them? The short answer is yes. Our study showed that teams work harder and more effectively if a boss doesn’t lose their temper with them. So you don’t have to threaten. Share your positive intent by saying something like, “This is not about blaming, it’s about fixing. I want us to focus on how we can solve our immediate problem. Then we can circle back to find ways to prevent it from happening again.” By framing your intent, you get your team focused on what they need to do, and not on how they are being mistreated.

When the heat turns up at work, most of us aren’t at our best. If you’ve lost your temper in the past, be easy on yourself. You may do it again. But don’t be discouraged – or complacent. Ask yourself, “When it matters most, who am I?” While it isn’t easy to step up to your best self under pressure, it is incredibly important. These are defining moments for you and for your team.