Apr 24 2020| Leadership | crisis
by Phil Eyre Founder
Pressure. As I write this, the song ‘Under Pressure’, a brilliant collaboration between Queen and David Bowie, is playing in my mind.
Whilst I haven’t yet seen any academic studies, I think it is fair to surmise that leaders are all under more pressure than normal.
For some leaders that we work with, pressure feels like it’s pushing and pressing down on them. For others, pressure is a source of energy, even excitement. “Phil, I feel a bit guilty about this, but I find these conditions exciting, I’m enjoying the challenge,” said one Guernsey business leader last week.
We each have good and bad responses to pressure and usually, both are exaggerated as the pressure increases. It is more important than ever to understand how we respond to pressure, recognising and harnessing the positives and overcoming those which are counterproductive.
This is where Leaders come in, applying our expertise in specialist psychometric surveys to quickly pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses under pressure. Whilst these characteristics are unique to you, there are four common themes that we observe in our work. I have summarised each, with some case studies. The scenarios are real, the names are invented. Do you recognise any of these responses in your own actions?
The word passion has its root in the same words as suffering; it’s the idea that something is so compelling, we will give blood, sweat and tears to pursue it. It’s not quite the same as charisma; in fact, some of the most passionate leaders that we work with are introverts; quieter, reflective yet tenacious in their desire to achieve a particular objective. In motivational language, we call this attainment skill.
Leaders that score highly in attainment skill will motivate and move - themselves and their people - effectively towards compelling objectives and opportunities. They will see possibility and opportunity, even (especially) in a crisis, for both short and long-term gain.
Jenny*, the CEO of a finance sector business, scores very highly in this area. As uncertainty and volatility spiked, clients in her field needed fast responses and a partnership (rather than transactional) approach from their providers. She quickly responded to a particular client need, spotted an opportunity, took a balanced risk with the result that the client moved over £100m to her firm.
David* on the other hand has a defeatist habit. He also works in finance and can also see potential opportunity. But he habitually self-defeats, making negative assumptions about other people’s likely decisions and talking himself out of attempting the new idea before even getting off the ground.
Having quickly identified this habit and the particular conditions that create it, David is now challenging himself to take the opportunity, to make the call and raise the idea, resisting his more instinctive reluctance. Already, stepping up in this way is paying off for him and his business.
The difference between the two can be heard in their language.
Jenny: “We can do…” and she does it.
“I have an idea…” and she pursues it.
“We exist to help our clients to...” and she rallies people who then go above and beyond.
David: “We could do … but they won’t go for it,” and nothing new happens.
“I have an idea, but you won’t like it,” and he’s not listened to.
“We could do …. but that’s going to take too much effort,” and the team deflates.
Commitment skill is how well we look after the things or people that are good for us, including taking care of ourselves.
This is a strong skill across the Channel Islands as many businesses take care and pride in developing long-term relationships with clients and colleagues. It comes with high personal standards and what many would deem as common sense. Effective communication is the hallmark of leaders with this skill; information that is well-timed, accurate, clear and useful - with an ability to listen to others.
Working from home is putting this skill to the test. People high in commitment skill will usually assume that there is a right or best way to do things. “This is how the dishwasher should be loaded” and will presume that others share those views. For some, tension like this is merely amusing, however, when this starts to create discouragement, there will be a knock-on, potentially creating less careful decisions and actions.
In other words, we are much more likely to say or do something we regret (i.e. careless) when we feel discouraged.
Abigail* is high in commitment skill and leads a professional services firm. She has expertly deployed a variety of approaches to keep closely connected with the firm’s clients, recognising that some need more attention than others. She knows who needs a call, who needs Zoom, which people need an email. It’s taking time and commitment to serve her clients this well, habits that have been long engrained.
Jack* is responsible for a division of an international business. He deeply cares about the people in his team, having carefully selected and developed his people over many years. He was quick to put in supportive measures as his business enacted continuing measures. He supports - and continues to challenge when needed - in bespoke ways with all of his people.
James* is a seasoned executive who’s anticipated retirement for some time. His commitment skill has notably dwindled in recent months even before the crisis hit. He’s just about keeping up his deadlines but is making some regrettable comments and questionable decisions (including re social distancing and self-isolation). This is demotivating others in the team. He thinks he’s funny, but actually he’s not. Candidly, he’d be better to retire sooner rather than later and adjust his post-work expectations.
In a crisis, leaders need to consciously choose to be committed and recognise the potential impact that discouragement can have on the quality of work that they and their team produce.
As an additional insight, discouragement dampens the commitment skill. In a crisis, it is important that leaders continually encourage their people, otherwise commitment and quality will drop. It’s equally important that the leaders themselves seek out sources of encouragement (raising courage). This is one facet of resilience. Often, the best sources are external to the leader; trusted advisers, clients, friends and family.
Good leaders are able to harness their awareness skill to identify coming problems and pivot accordingly. This skill is the ability to listen and learn from a wide range of relevant sources, being neither closed-minded nor distracted. Awareness includes the ability and desire to gain supportive evidence for decisions, testing theory before leaping to action. It comes with an attitude that says, “what’s worked in the past won’t work in the future”, looking out for new pitfalls and problems, rather than assuming that past experiences will be automatically repeated.
In our experience with Channel lsland and UK clients, this is frequently an area of weakness. With a few exceptions, most are habitually much better at solving immediate issues than avoiding them in the first place. The demands of day-to-day thinking and decisions can suffocate awareness skill, with rush creating the potential to reach for the easiest solution (usually one that’s been tried before) than the best for this particular moment. In some cases, leaders are waiting for others to make decisions that they will then follow, rather than take anticipatory action.
Some recent examples of the awareness skill in action include:
- Businesses with a reach in Asia were more aware of the potential impact of Coronavirus; not all took anticipatory action though. Those that did demonstrated good awareness skill.
- One business leader spoke to me last week about how they had spotted a jump in demand for a non-core product early on and were able to secure supplies and build marketing routes to other products quickly.
- A small business leader quickly identified that one of their core services would be at least on hold and reoriented their team to more relevant services.
Recklessness is the counterproductive equivalent. This is associated with the ill-informed, sometimes arrogant belief that “we don’t need to take evasive measures”. Concerns are dismissed as weakness, even when they have evidence. You might ask why anyone would embrace such a habit; for some, the adrenaline that goes with stress and pressure can become addictive.
William* doesn’t often see problems coming; he enjoys the energy that goes with firefighting. He has grown to believe that he is somehow more physically capable than “normal” people and takes pride in being able to work late, get up early and work through lunch. When tiredness - or worse - kicks in, rather than take a break or seek help (“other people need help, not me”) he works even harder. The vicious loop that he’s creating is potentially quite destructive. He hadn’t even noticed the impact on his health and quality of work until we reviewed his psychometrics.
Enhancing awareness skill includes:
- Slowing down to speed up, especially for more impulsive characters. In other words, pause and ask questions before deciding;
- Expanding inputs to thinking. Actively seeking diverse perspectives and not just ‘the usual’ sources;
- Building time into a busy week for strategic thinking. This is nearly always a challenge for leaders; I find myself working hard to persuade people that strategic thinking is work, arguably the most important work that they do. Too many leave strategic thinking to low-quality hours.
Pain and trouble can sometimes be good; they tell us when something is wrong. When embraced well, we learn and grow the most when solving painful and troublesome issues. Solving requires action; decisions and a plan that take us out of pain/trouble. It comes with a hopeful attitude, the motivation to try, try and try again. Another way to explain this is an agility skill, continually finding solutions to problems.
The counterproductive equivalent is a martyr-mindset; hopeless and sometimes resentful with a presumption that pain or stress is just normal and can’t be solved. “I’ve tried to fix it once, it can’t be fixed”.
In the early stages of a crisis, the firefighters come into their own, dealing with multiple problems seemingly all at once, making fast decisions and getting issue after issue solved. The longer the crisis conditions take, though, the more likely that a martyr-mindset can develop, which might go something like this, e.g. “without me, this place would be in a right mess; I need to solve all the problems, these other people are not up to it.”
Harry* is a pivotal member of his team. They all rely on him to get things done. He never takes a break, always works late, gets frustrated with the team members - yet continually lets them off the hook. They have no idea how he feels. They have little idea why they’re even there. Harry is displaying both resolution skill and a martyr-mindset all at once.
After reviewing his psychometrics, Harry is tackling the martyr habits. The impact just two weeks later; “I have more concentration…. I’ve learned a new skill…I’ve apologised to [team member] who’s now coming up with creative ideas…I’ve stopped chasing up everyone all the time which means I can concentrate on my own work...”
Harry is in a better place already. The team is in a better place. The business is already benefiting.
Now, more than ever, leaders need to be crystal clear about the strengths and weaknesses that they bring to each situation, the disproportionate sources of pressure and likely triggers for counterproductive habits and choices.
We can help you to do this quickly and with precision. The psychometrics we use will take around one hour (in your own time) to complete, we review together (just over one hour) and then follow up to affirm unique tactics that will help you (max one hour).
Call or message to find out more.
*names changed, scenarios real.