Are you a leader who cracks under pressure? Your team’s success could be at risk

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

managers who crack under pressure put their team at risk

‘A leader is a dealer in hope’


That quote sounds like something straight out of a present-day leadership expert’s keynote speech, right? In fact, it was legendary French statesman and military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte who uttered those words over 200 years ago.

As it turns out, he was spot on. Two centuries later, a study by leadership training company, VitalSmarts, has proven that when managers buckle under pressure, their success of their team will suffer.


1 in 3 leaders can’t handle the heat

According to the study, one third of managers don’t cope effectively with stressful situations. When the pressure is on, many leaders:

  • become controlling instead of being open to solutions
  • end up losing control of their emotions
  • fail to listen or understand input and concerns of their team members
  • skirt around issues instead of communicating clearly and directly
  • act in ways that are underhanded (or even sneaky)

At Tenfold, we provide leadership coaching for small business owners and managers so we’re familiar with balancing profit and people. Our advice is to understand the lay of the land so you can avoid the sinkholes.

Anger is ‘danger’ without the ‘d’

The tendency of such leaders to either emotionally shut down or explode in response to stress, has an extremely negative impact on team performance and culture.

Team members often unwittingly mirror their leaders’ example. Sensing danger and uncertainty, everyone shifts gears into survival mode. In this every-man-for-himself environment, morale, performance and even customer service quality often become collateral damage.

When leaders appear to lose hope, teams feel abandoned

A leader’s inability to cope with stress can leave team members feeling hopeless and lacking in direction. As a result, they will often:

  • stop talking and participating – they feel that there is no point speaking up, since no one is listening
  • start working to rule – the chorus becomes ‘they don’t pay me enough to put up with this’. Even star employees who typically go above and beyond can suddenly find themselves inclined towards putting in the bare minimum of effort
  • become frustrated and angry – these emotions are the enemy of action; productivity will plummet
  • abandon ship – over 60% of people with a hot-head manager will seriously consider leaving their job over it. When you take recruitment costs into account, that’s an expensive temper tantrum

It’s the high-pressure moments that define you as a leader

Good leadership isn’t much of a challenge when things are going well. As employees see it, it’s when the chips are down that the mask comes off, revealing a leader’s true character – including their flaws.

Unfortunately, therefore, it’s the times you fail to make the grade as a leader that your team will remember the most (and regard as the real you).

The good news is that you can change your responses and communication style. Changing your team’s opinions and beliefs about you as a leader may take a little longer. Consistency is key: take every opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve changed for the better and you’ll soon have things back on track.

Try not to beat yourself up

If you’ve lost control at work, remind yourself that you are only human. As a business owner your reputation, personal livelihood and that of your team are all on the line. Those are high stakes.

Plus, while a stormy temper isn’t good leadership form, there may be a few silver linings:

  1. at least you care – clearly you have strong feelings, otherwise you wouldn’t react so passionately. Apathy (not caring at all) certainly doesn’t make for effective leadership either
  2. it might provide a catalyst – if you’re erupting all over the place, it’s a pretty good indicator that you need to reassess how things are done in your business and make some positive changes that benefit everyone   
  3. you have an opportunity to model humility and apologise – it takes great strength to admit that you were wrong. It is also goes a long way towards creating a resilient team culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes (as long as you make amends).


You can re-wire your brain

Emotional regulation skills are developed early in life. If an explosive or implosive (shut down) stress response is what was modelled for you in your formative years- in your personal or in business life, you may find that this has become your own fallback in the heat of the moment.

But neural pathways are not set in stone. You can teach yourself to respond to stress and high-pressure situations in a more positive way. In fact, every time you remain in control enough to choose a calmer and more appropriate emotional response, you reinforce this new pathway in your brain. Over time it will become second nature.

How you can stay in control of your emotions for better communication

Don’t bottle things up

Make a habit of dealing with minor annoyances or concerns in the moment. While it can be confronting or uncomfortable to raise what seems like a small issue, it prevents manageable molehills from turning into exploding volcanoes.

Anchor yourself by sticking to the facts

When you can feel your emotions are driving your response, step back and let the facts guide you. This will help you maintain perspective on the size of the problem. What were your expectations for this situation? What ultimately happened? Keeping emotions out of it can lead to better problem-solving opportunities that will help you and your team bridge that gap.

Challenge your negative thought processes

If you tend to play the helpless, blameless victim to everyone else’s evil villain, then it’s time to call yourself out and edit those internal stories. Instead of looking to blame, examine the motivations of those involved – it is rare that anyone purposefully mismanages a situation. Also, remember to check in with yourself about your own role in events. Taking responsibility is a key element of good leadership.

Need a vent? Take it outside

By all means, talk everything out with someone – just not anybody inside your business. Save your venting for your mentor, partner or someone supportive who can offer a sympathetic (but objective) ear.

Walk it off

If you’re feeling really angry and can’t stay calm or solutions-focused, then physically removing yourself might be your best option in that moment. This will stop you from saying things you will later regret. A fast walk around the block will also lower the cortisol (stress hormone) in your body, helping you to calm down quicker.

Be mindful of patterns in your responses

Pay attention to the situations that make you react badly and try to identify your triggers. Can you avoid them or at least make them more predictable? If you get ‘hangry’ for example, make sure that you have a supply of healthy energy boosting snacks in your office to tide you over between meals.

Let your team in so you can all focus on solving the problem together

Feeling hopeless is lonely. But you aren’t alone – you have a team of people to help you solve the problem. Let them know that you wish to create a safe and blameless space to work on how to move forward. Then, once the issue is resolved, you can work together on strategies to make sure you can avoid that problem in the future.

See these six qualities shared by resilient leaders for more tips on how to build your personal resilience.

Be the change you want to see  

Open, direct, honest, calm and curious leaders who are willing to listen – even under enormous pressure – get the best results from their teams. If you don’t always live up to that ideal, all is not lost. Try the above techniques to change your stress response and in time you will see results – to the benefit of yourself, your team and your business.