Leading under pressure
To control the anxiety produced by moments of intense pressure, first step back and analyze the stakes.
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy+business.
Pressure is a goad. Whether it arrives in the guise of a burning platform or a project deadline, a strategic goal or a performance target, a high-stakes deal or an aggressive competitor, pressure can help leaders attain new heights of performance and achievement. You know the adage: no pressure, no diamonds.
The problem with this pithy observation, attributed to 19th-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, is that it is both true and false. Though pressure can drive outsized results, it can also become an insurmountable obstacle to performance and achievement. It can overwhelm a leader and result in missteps that torpedo companies and careers.
The powerful effects—and vagaries—of pressure were dramatically illustrated during the Tokyo Olympics when gymnast Simone Biles unexpectedly withdrew from the women’s team finals. The extraordinarily talented and seemingly unshakable Biles, who was considered a shoo-in to repeat her 2016 gold medal win in the all-around gymnastics competition, cited her mental health. Later, she said that she had been suffering from the “twisties,” a condition that leaves gymnasts disoriented in midair and can lead to serious injury. The twisties are thought to be caused by performance pressure and stress, both of which were surely running higher than usual in an Olympics held during a pandemic.
When I mentioned Biles to Dane Jensen, CEO of performance consulting firm Third Factor and author of the new book The Power of Pressure, he suggested that she might have fallen prey to an imbalance in what he calls the pressure equation. Jensen finds that pressure grows more intense across three elements, as the levels of importance (how much something matters), uncertainty (how unclear the outcome is), and volume (how many other demands there are on your time) rise.
Peak pressure moments are riddled with anxiety that leaders need to manage, not ignore.
“There is a well-accepted and common wisdom that success breeds confidence, and that confidence helps you handle pressure better,” explained Jensen. “My read, without having talked to Simone Biles or knowing exactly what is going on in her head, is that there is a countervailing force to that positive cycle, which is that as you accrue status and visibility, the ‘importance’ piece gets greatly magnified. The stakes expand. They begin to encompass your self-worth and the weight of the 330 million people you are carrying along for the ride.”
Business leaders are subject to this phenomenon, too. As they reach higher levels of the corporate hierarchy, the importance of their decisions and actions grows, and the stakes rise. And like pressure itself, the element of importance is a double-edged sword.
Over the long term, being connected to the importance of whatever you are doing inspires and directs action. As author Simon Sinek said, “Starting with why” is a powerful motivational force. But Jensen contends that during peak pressure moments—say, a floor exercise at the Olympics or a corporate crisis—“importance can ratchet up to a level that is not healthy and is not a performance enhancer. It is actually something that is a real derailer. [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk is a high-profile guy who has had some fraying during the peak pressure moments but seems to be able to tolerate unbelievable pressure and public scrutiny over the long haul.”
How do you manage importance during these peak pressure moments? The secret is to understand that how you perceive the stakes in any given situation can be controlled. “When you get into peak pressure moments, all you can think about is how important [the stakes are], what you might gain, what you might lose,” said Jensen. “Somewhat counterintuitively, as you approach peak pressure moments, your job shifts from pulling importance close to making sure that you are not carrying it with you into the moment.”
Jensen offers a four-step technique for defusing the stakes in peak pressure moments.
1. Ask yourself what’s not at stake. “What are the things that are going to be there regardless of how the presentation to the board goes?” asked Jensen. “For instance, your family is still going to be waiting for you at home when you get out of this thing an hour from now, regardless of how it goes. That question—what is not at stake?—helps disassemble some of the manufactured importance that we often layer on peak pressure moments.”
2. Avoid the anxiety spiral. Often, leaders exaggerate the stakes in peak pressure moments. “It’s not just the deal that is at stake; it’s [the thought] that if I don’t make the deal, I am going to look like a fraud or like I’m just not good enough to do this,” said Jensen. To counter this tendency, he recommends seeking evidence for the stakes you associate with a challenge, being objective by asking yourself how you would view someone who didn’t succeed in meeting that challenge, and, if you’re still unsure whether a stake is real, giving yourself the benefit of the doubt.
3. Let go of ego-driven stakes. Just as we tend to give leaders too much credit—and blame—for the performance of their companies, so, too, do leaders themselves. “You only need to own how you acquit yourself. All the other stuff—share price, revenue, profits—is only partly within your control,” said Jensen. “If it’s only important to your ego, let it go before peak pressure moments.”
4. Gauge what is truly urgent. Manufactured urgency distracts from performance in peak pressure moments. “Urgency is based on the belief that you need to act now, or else,” wrote Jensen in his book. “Ask yourself two questions: 1. What is the worst thing that can happen if I force action now? 2. What is the worst thing that can happen if I delay?” If the answers suggest that a peak pressure moment just feels urgent and could be better dealt with at a later time, give yourself a break and postpone it.
Peak pressure moments are riddled with anxiety that leaders need to manage, not ignore. “Pressure is your friend in these moments. It’s where energy comes from. It’s what gives you the ability to be a better version of yourself,” said Jensen. “The job here is to embrace pressure, and the only way to embrace it is to anticipate the anxiety that comes with it and prepare for it.”