3 Leadership Secrets to Succeed Under Pressure

A recent work trends report states that the demands of today’s working environment have left managers completely out of their depth. Managers feel pressure from above and below to execute corporate strategy regarding hybrid work, while providing a sense of flexibility, purpose and career opportunities

Low- and midlevel managers are now the colleagues with whom their direct reports most frequently interact. Sixty percent of hybrid employees say their direct manager is their most direct connection to company culture. 

This stands in sharp contrast to pre-pandemic times when employees interacted with their peers more than their managers. It also raises the stakes considerably on the importance of effective and productive interactions between managers and their team members. 

Negative Impacts of Stress on Managers

By 2025 36.2 million Americans will be remote, an increase of 16.8 million people from pre-pandemic rates. The converging challenges of an increasingly dispersed workforce, greater expectations from companies and employees of the role managers play in ensuring their staff’s well-being, and constrained resources have increased stress on managers and revealed that time-worn strategies aren’t effective in the current environment. High stress levels and inadequate support compromises managers’ ability to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities successfully. 

The negative impacts on managers, when they cannot appropriately manage their stress, include:  

  • Lack of clear thinking
  • Increased propensity to make errors, misjudge situations and overlook opportunities
  • Weakened engagement and support of their team
  • Greater focus on assigning blame
  • Reduced communication
  • Diminished trust in others and the organization

In turn these impacts lead to workplace toxicity and quiet quitting

Secrets to Succeed Under Pressure

To succeed under pressure and stress, here are key leadership secrets. 

1.    Manage Yourself First

Here’s the thing—before you can manage others effectively, you must know how to manage yourself. Managing yourself means knowing first how to take care of you, before turning your attention to others. In other words, in the event of an emergency, put on your oxygen mask then help the person next to you. Failing to prioritize self-care depletes your ability to perform at your full potential and to support others in times of turmoil. 

2.    Be Present

The cause of stress is typically something we’re anticipating with anxiousness, like a new or impending deadline or something that happened and leads to feeling regret, upset or shame, such as a flawed deliverable. 

In other words, stress is associated with the future or the past. It’s not about the present. And when you’re focused on the future or the past, you’re not present. That lack of “presence” is caused by an emotional response—the “amygdala hijack”—that disrupts your ability to respond rationally and with clear-headedness to situations.

It’s a cycle that begins with a triggering event that we unconsciously judge to be a potential threat or source of pain. That judgment initiates a response in the body (physical) and mind (emotional) that in turn brings about an acute stress reaction that culminates in a fight or flight response.

3.   Interrupt Your Stress Response 

Many leaders believe they can improve their performance under stress, by tackling the symptoms that become apparent when their performance declines, such as poor time management or communication skills. 

While closing a skill gap to address a performance weakness will yield some results, the improvements won’t stick because they don’t address the cause of the problem. So, instead of training yourself to prioritize tasks better or to become better at difficult conversations, train yourself instead to interrupt your stress response. 

How to Stop the Hijack

Steps you can take to stop the hijack, reduce your stress and return to a clear head and tranquil mind include:

  • Changing how you think. Remember that every situation is neutral, until we label or judge it. How we think about a situation determines how we feel, not vice versa. It’s the combination of thoughts and feelings that drive our response (or the lack of one). If you want to change how you’re responding to or feeling about a situation, start by changing how you think about it.
  • Taking a deep breath (and keep repeating). When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes shallower and more rapid as adrenaline and cortisol levels rise in our systems, just as they do when we’re facing a lion or other existential threat. 

Slowing your breath and breathing more deeply lowers the level of stress hormones in our body. If you’re someone who’s skeptical about the value of focusing on your breath, consider that you can survive up to a week without food and water but only about four minutes without air.

  • Quieting your mind. Engage your senses with deep attention. This helps create new neural pathways—new learnings—as a conditioned response when you identify a stressful situation. By repeating this over time, you’ll strengthen these new neural connections while weakening the older ones that brought about your body’s stress response. 

For example, when you feel stressed you can do any the following for 10-30 seconds:

  • Touch: Rub the tips of two fingers together with such concentration that you can feel the ridges on each finger.
  • Look: Focus closely on an object in your proximity, noting all its nuances, textures and shades of color.
  • Listen: Sit quietly and focus on the sound nearest to or farthest from you.

The secret here is giving your mind different sensations and stimuli on which to focus, instead of being triggered by stress. For additional reinforcement, repeat these throughout your day with the same focused attention, even when you’re not experiencing stress. 

These new practices will help you develop a quieter mind with clearer thinking during high pressure situations. Likewise, they’ll increase your leadership presence by improving your ability to remain calm, communicate effectively, focus on priorities, be adaptable and lead by example

Actions Organizations Can Take to Relieve Pressure on Managers

In partnership with managers, organizations have an opportunity to alleviate pressure and become a highly sought-after employer. The work trends report predicts that in 2023, the top organizations will take the following important steps to reduce stress on managers: 

  • Clarify manager priorities, make it clear how managers should allocate their time and redesign their roles where necessary. 
  • Provide fresh support and training to mitigate the widening managerial skills gap. The approaches that were successful in 2019 are ill-suited for the workforce of 2023. 

Relieving pressure and reducing stress on managers requires a commitment from the organization to prioritize employee well-being. It begins with eliminating workplace toxicity and extends to promoting work-life balance and providing training opportunities, resources and mentoring for managers to have support during stressful times.

Leadership Coaching Helps Managers Succeed Under Pressure

A leader’s success in managing stress sustainably is determined by the extent to which they diminish their likelihood to react and increase their likelihood to respond. It takes a nanosecond to react, just like when you touch a hot stove. That’s a useful signal, but it’s helpful only if you remove your hand. Keeping it there—keeping yourself under and at the effect of stress—is harmful to you and those around you. 

If you want to truly succeed under pressure and become an effective leader, consider leadership coaching. Are you interested in finding out how 4D Executive & Leadership Coaching by Leading Edge can help? Click here to book a complimentary discovery call today.