Leading in Tough Times 2 – You Under Pressure


Last week, with a first RFL in a series on “leadership in times of challenge,” I invited you to consider the possibility that someone’s nutty behavior may be less a product of their individual psychological makeup than the fact that there are unusual pressures in the system.  I gave the example of a teen acting out, or someone blowing up at a meeting.  It’s easy to blame them, but it may be much more fruitful to ask: What’s going on here (or in other circles they’re in) that would cause them to flip out?  What was implied is that systemic pressure will cause a weak link to break; pressure seeks escape.*

Today I’d suggest more broadly: Everyone – or nearly everyone – consciously or otherwise reacts to pressures and stresses on the system as a whole.  And it’s important to know how YOU react.  If a company is in trouble, for instance, fear will generate predictable outlets:  e.g., authorities will be blamed; factions will fight over perceived scarcities (of money, management’s attention, etc.); personality differences that are usually tolerated will become hot spots.  The well-meaning people fueling these distractions will often and unwittingly be taking focus away from the real work that’s threatening the company.

The first work of leadership is to know how I – me, the one I can best control – react to pressure.  Two places deserve your attention.  First, are you playing the distraction games mentioned above – rumor-mongering, finger-pointing, side-taking, etc.?  If so, STOP!  Second, it helps to understand how you react under pressure.  Most of us tend to exaggerate our behaviors, leaning upon our perceived strengths, our comfort zones.  For instance, I tend to retreat into the safety of big-picture thoughts, big ideas and ideals.  But the group may need focus on some hard details and daily execution.  Others tend to be take-control folks, and under pressure may take the situation by the throat (remember General Haig when President Reagan was shot, announcing he was in control?).  Some retreat.  Some charge.  Some get Mr. Spock like logical.  Others get very emotional – angry or empathetic to the point of paralysis.

Do you know what you do under pressure?  As I have often written, leaders ask not “What’s comfortable for me, or what do I want?” but must always ask, “What does the group need?”  Don’t assume they’re the same.

Economic and other group pressures will continue to accompany those who lead, it’s important to understand how you react to them if you are to

Lead with your best self.


* Ronald Heifetz is a phenomenal teacher when it comes to understanding group pressure and leadership response.  A Harvard-trained psychiatrist, Heifetz started the leadership programs at the JFK School of Government at Harvard where he continues to teach leadership.  You can find his analysis in his book Leading on the Edge, co-authored by Marty Linsky, former chief of staff to Governor William Weld of Massachusetts.

  • Good Thoughts, Hope they help.
    Currently embroiled in mire due to exactly what is mentioned above. I have given time to pass in the hopes to quiet the situation, now as you advise, need to meet with staff and listen to really what is going on and then motivate and improve our situations to move on.
    Thanks for the insight

  • Context versus Character

    As we get nearer to elections this Fall, political advertisements and commentaries frequently become focused on the character of the candidates. The political campaign process plays on our oversimplified “good guy/bad guy” perceptions.

    There is something in our perceptions that make us instinctively want to explain the world around us in terms of a candidate’s essential attributes or character: “he’s a _____ _____.”

    The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. When it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.

    We do this because we are more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues.

    Yet, character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that we are really good or really lucky in controlling our living and working environment.

    Imagine yourself in one of the hostile environments on planet earth for a sustained period of time and consider how your character might change. Create that image before you go to the polls this Fall to discover how important the situation is in affecting the character of the people living through periods of difficult and structural change.

  • Thanks for the reminder – here’s my example. Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes has been providing emergency support for people in Kalamazoo County since 1982. Never before in our history have we faced as dramatically, the one-two punch of increased demand and rising food and energy costs. Staff and volunteers are faced every day with enormous pressure to make food available – food the most basic of needs. As you can imagine tensions can run high but last week a staff member celebrated a birthday in a way that generated energy in the midst of chaos.

    At the end of the month we convert our box truck into a mobile pantry distribution center and take it to a location where we meet up to 30 households a provide emergency groceries. Last Thursday, in addition to groceries delivered with dignity and respect – there was birthday cake and ice cream for everyone! Talk about pressure relief! A challenging late afternoon extra responsibility turned into “the best birthday ever”!

    On Friday, the challenges remained but so too did the glow of a shared celebration! Sometimes the pressure relief comes in unexpected ways! Thanks for your wisdom and leadership – Anne

    • Anne, what a great story. Thank you for sharing it. It’s good to hear what changes true leadership can lead to, as well as people caring about each other. Everyone knows that times are tough right now, but by sharing the burden, we can help others in our community.

  • Your insights are relevant and meaningful. It provides food for thought and a template for action. Thank you.

  • Great idea to have us each consider our automatic reaction under pressure. I know that I tend to become absentminded externally when I feel anxious internally. At those times, I have to really slow down and focus on what I am doing.

    I’d add one more step to the process which is to do whatever you can to calm your system down. It’s very hard to change your behavior when you are revved up and freaking out. The best antedote I find is doing something simple — usually exercise, or taking a walk, or saying a prayer, or calling a friend — to release the fear and anxiety and become more grounded in the present moment.

    Just one more idea to add to your great suggestions.

    • I also found the suggestions helpful. I ask though once you evaluate your own reactions to difficult situations how do you diffuse co-workers who continue to be very emotional/ angry during staff meetings?

      • Esther,
        More about this in the week(s) ahead. But leaders keep doing two things naming (and helping allow others to name) the reality: What’s so difficult? What’s happening here? How can we begin to address that?
        And reminding (or refinding) the vision, the purpose, the goal. How do those sound?
        Practice doing them and I think you’ll see the beginning of constructive engagement!

  • Role playing can really help…

    Many moons ago…back in what my kids call “the dark ages,” I was a minor functionary in a major mess — the Social Security Administration. It was shortly after the advent of Supplemental Security Income benefits, and right about the time of the infamous “notch.” The “notch” was a calculated loss of future benefits caused by decoupling the ongoing benefit calculation from the wage-price index, and required a great deal of explanation.

    I was attending a training seminar (TA Judo, I believe) which was supposed to help us deal with customers from the Transactional Analysis (I’m OK, You’re OK) approach. As part of the process, we were required to take part in a role-playing exercise. Our little morality play was to represent participants in a labor-union negotiation session. It was lightly scripted, and we were to carry forward, using our own knowledge and our wits. I was elected to be the union leader and a close friend was the owner’s representative.

    We settled in to play our parts and spend what we thought would be a boring half-hour or so. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As the negotiation progressed, and we received feedback from our constituents, the pressure to make gains began to mount. Discussions and negotiations became heated and more urgent by the minute. Believe it or not, after 30 minutes of role-playing, we were no longer playing. Two very good friends were on their feet, crimson faces inches apart, eyes locked and bulging, shouting at the tops of our voices. I was angry. I had trouble controlling the discussion because of the emotions coursing through my body. My friend was out of control and pounding on the table, threatening to sell the business and put us all out of work. I was no better.

    When time was called and the pressure bottle was uncorked, we stood for a few moments, realizing what had happened, and began laughing uncontrollably. I learned a most valuable lesson that day — about becoming emotionally invested in debates that required “the Little Professor”… i.e., the cool and rational part of ourselves to be in control.

    I believe that properly used, role-playing of this type would be most valuable in learning about our “hot buttons,” and how to avoid letting others press them — or worse pressing them ourselves. It is a fine way to help get a glimpse of your own grace under pressure.

    Hope my cautionary tale is of some value. Good issue to discuss.

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