When pressure breaks down a manager, it breaks down their team

Most of the things managers do are forgettable, the actions you carry out on a day to day basis are experienced by your direct reports as routine. But for the days that are not routine, when you are under pressure, how you respond to this pressure makes a lasting impression on your team and the people around you. Research has shown that your temperament in these situations has a significant impact on the performance of your team.

When you are under pressure are you calm, collected, direct, curious and willing to listen or are you angry, upset and closed-minded? Maxfield and Hale carried out a survey and asked over 1300 people to describe how their manager acted under stress and how that behaviour impacted their work. Results showed that managers fold under pressure.

  • 53% of leaders are more controlling and closed minded than open and curious.
  • 45% are more emotional and upset than in control and calm.
  • A further 45% ignore suggestions and don’t listen or try to understand.
  • 43% are more angry than cool and collected.
  • 37% rather avoid and side-step as opposed to being direct.
  • 30% are more deceitful and devious than honest and candid.

One executive that they worked with was very deliberate about establishing a supportive and fun atmosphere so that his team would be comfortable and feel safe trying out new things. He felt as though his role was to support his team and develop talent. To his surprise, when his team was asked what they thought of him they labelled him a ‘jerk’. He felt that 95% of the time he was a supportive, fun guy and that he only lost his temper 5% of the time. His team agreed with this description however as you can see the non-routine behaviour left a lasting impression. His team felt that in that 5%, when the pressure was on and the stakes were high, their manager revealed his ‘true’ self.

The research also found that when leaders fold under pressure it actually hurts the team. Respondents stated that when their manager blows up under pressure, the team has a lower morale and as a result are more likely to miss deadlines, quality standards and budgets.

A leader’s bold communication style also has a domino effect on both the psyche and morale of the team. During their research an employee of a large multinational company told Maxfield and Hale that his direct managers were in the middle of high stakes conversations and the more he tried to speak up and be engaged, the more verbally aggressive his managers became. As a result, he and his colleagues became more and more silent and removed. They began to deliberately avoid management and did as little as they could get away with. It got to the point where they adopted the attitude “They pay me just enough not to leave, and I work just hard enough for them not to fire me.” Maxfield and Hale’s research found that one in three leaders were seen by their team as someone who you cannot talk to when the stakes are high. When leaders cannot practise effective dialogue when they are stressed and under pressure, their direct reports are more likely to think about leaving their jobs than those whose manager can stay in dialogue when they are stressed. Team members are also much more likely to stop participating and shut down, be frustrated and angry and more likely to complain.

Here are a number of skills that can help a leader be at their best when the pressure is on.

  • Work out what you really want – In a stressful situation, before you let your emotions take control you need to stop for a minute and ask yourself what it is you want long term both for yourself and for your team. The answer to this question will be the purpose that will guide your actions.
  • Challenge your story – The best leaders challenge their stories. For example, if someone on the team makes a mistake, take a moment to ask yourself ‘why might a rational and decent person make this mistake?’ and ‘what part did I play in allowing their mistake to go unnoticed’. By asking these questions you are moving yourself from angry to curious problem solver and as a result you will be a much better leader.
  • Start with facts – When we are angry, we tend to lead with our emotions, not with the facts. Good leaders resist the temptation to throw around accusations and instead gather all the facts. You should focus on what it was that you expected for example the commitments or targets that were missed. Then take into account the things you observed such as the specific actions with times, date etc. Don’t however include your judgements, conclusions or opinions. Facts are both verifiable and neutral and so become common ground for solving problems.
  • Create safety – When you are under pressure at work how do you get your team to act quickly without showing them your anger? Can you get them to put in extra hours without being threatening? The research carried out by Maxfield and Hale shows that team work harder as well as more effectively if their manager doesn’t lose their temper.

When the pressure is on at work and our reputations are on the line, most of us are not the best versions of ourselves. It is easy to lose your temper and you may again in the future. Although it is hard to be your best self-whilst under pressure it is incredibly important for both you and your team. Be mindful of your attitude and emotions and both you and your team will benefit. For more information on our leadership coaching click here or email info@rfc.ie.

Maxfield, D. Hale, J. (2018) When Managers Break Down Under Pressure, So Do Their Teams [Online] https://hbr.org/2018/12/when-managers-break-down-under-pressure-so-do-their-teams

VitalSmarts. (2018) THE MANAGER EFFECT: 1 OUT OF 3 MANAGERS CAN’T HANDLE HIGH-STAKES SITUATIONS AND AS A RESULT, THEIR TEAMS ARE LESS SUCCESSFUL (Online) https://www.vitalsmarts.com/press/2018/11/the-manager-effect-1-out-of-3-managers-cant-handle-high-stakes-situations-and-as-a-result-their-teams-are-less-successful/

For more information on our leadership/team coaching service click here to visit our website or email info@rfc.ie.

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