Focus on Employee Communications

A Leader’s Guide to Effective Communication Under Pressure

By David Maxfield

Apr. 18, 2019

How can a manager become measurably more effective?

To answer this question, scholars, scientists and leaders have studied personality traits; others have tried to understand and categorize management styles. While these studies yield appealing insights, they are difficult to emulate. Evidence is lacking that these approaches to managerial effectiveness have enabled managers to markedly improve their personal influence and results.

In our own efforts to help managers improve effectiveness, we’ve focused our study on crucial moments — those moments where a manager’s communication has a profound and disproportionate effect on results. In moments when the stakes are high, do managers remain calm, collected, candid, curious, direct and willing to listen? Or do their direct reports describe them as the opposite: upset, angry, closed-minded, rejecting, even devious? And how does either style under stress affect results and relationships?

Our latest research confirms, yet again, that the way a manager performs in these crucial moments has a disproportionate effect on their personal influence and their people. The research also shows, however, that a shockingly large majority of managers and leaders buckle under pressure.

We asked more than 1,300 employees to describe their leader’s style under stress and the impact of that behavior. According to respondents, one in three leaders are seen by their direct reports as someone who fails to engage in dialogue when the stakes get high. Specifically:

  • 53 percent of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • 45 percent are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • 45 percent ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • 43 percent are more angry and heated than cool and collected.
  • 37 percent avoid or sidestep rather than be direct and unambiguous.
  • 30 percent are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest.

This is significant because it’s these nonroutine moments that define you as a leader. In difficult, highly charged situations, some managers react emotionally and aggressively while others became silent and withdrawn. These responses damage relationships and undermine the work being done.

One executive we worked with was adamant and deliberate about creating a fun and supportive atmosphere where his team felt safe to try new things. He saw his role as building people. And yet, to his surprise, most of his team labelled him a “jerk.” As we described a situation his team found particularly “jerky,” he said, “You’re probably thinking I’m some sort of hypocrite. But I’m not. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m the fun, supportive guy I’ve described. It’s only the 5 percent when I lose my temper that I say stupid things. Those statements are not an accurate reflection of who I am.”

And while it was true that his team agreed he was great 95 percent of time, it was also true that this nonroutine behavior was what left a lasting impression. His team felt those few moments when stakes were high and the heat was on revealed the truth about who he really was.

A leader’s unsavory behavior in stressful moments does more than harm his or her personal influence — it also hurts the team. When asked how their leader’s style impacted their results, respondents said that when their leader clams up or blows up under pressure, team members have lower morale; are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets and quality standards; and act in ways that drive customers away. They also described negative impacts on morale and psyche. Specifically, when a leader fails to practice effective dialogue under stress, team members are more likely to consider leaving their job; more likely to shut down and stop participating; less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities; and more likely to be frustrated, angry and complain.

Luckily, there are managers who handle themselves under pressure differently from the rest. In high-stakes situations, they remain calm and respectful. They don’t skirt or minimize issues. They are direct, but their behavior invites others to contribute their concerns and ideas. By doing so, they surface the most accurate, complete information; they better understand problems; they formulate with others the best solutions; and they act together with greater unity and conviction. This, in turn, creates better relationships and results.

Another silver lining? A manager’s ability or inability to deal with high-stakes, stressful situations has nothing to do with age or gender. Neither factor correlated with the skills and behaviors of dialogue under pressure. The ability to stay in dialogue when stakes are high is not dependent on genetic or inherent factors. Rather, these are skills anyone can learn and adopt to not only be more personally effective and influential, but to better lead a team to success.

Here are a few tips managers can use to improve their communication style under stress and see better results from the people they lead.

  • Speak up early. When we anticipate stress or pressure, most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at dialogue don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and often worsen the situation — and their reaction to the situation — as they begin to work around the problem.
  • Challenge your story. When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain, victim and helpless stories. Villain stories exaggerate others’ negative attributes. Victim stories make us out to be innocent sufferers who have no role in the problem. And helpless stories rationalize our over- or under-reactions because, “There was nothing else I could have done!” Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.
  • Create safety. When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others get defensive to, or retreat from, your tirade. As it turns out, people don’t get defensive because of the content of your message, but because of the intent they perceive behind it. So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to work with you.
  • Start with facts. When the stakes are high, our brains often serve us poorly. To maximize cognitive efficiency, we tend to store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do, and use that information to realign your own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.

Managers who can effectively hold crucial conversations outperform their peers. As an organization collects a critical mass of these effective managers, it has a profound effect on successful execution of initiatives, financial agility and overall performance.

David Maxfield is a New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the research function at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company.

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