From the Experts: Under Pressure

From the Experts: Under Pressure

By the Turknett Team

We all know what it feels like to be under pressure. We know that it’s often not about the situation itself, but how we react to it. As a leader, you must be a master of your emotions, not allowing any situation to get the better of you. We are all human, however, there is something to be gained in knowing how to react and how to control your emotions. We asked our team of experts how they have helped their clients deal with pressure, and what the most notable destructive traits they’ve seen were, and how they can be avoided.  

Answers From the Experts:


Lyn Turknett, Co-founder and Co-chair

How do you coach clients to handle pressure?
  • By helping them understand both how common and how destructive negative reactions to pressure are. Research has shown that 45% of leaders get more upset and emotional than calm and in control. And they are even more likely to get more controlling and closed-minded, making it less likely that they will be open to thinking that could solve the problem. The research also shows that the morale of their teams declines and teams are more likely to miss deadlines and perform poorly.
  • We help them build the emotional mastery and resilience needed to handle pressure more effectively. They have to first reframe the situation – to talk to themselves about the situation differently. Is it really terrible, horrible, and awful? Or would it be better to frame it to yourself as a problem to be solved and a test of leadership character? Asking yourself the question, “what’s the worst thing that could happen, and how would I deal with it” is often helpful for feeling more confident and less distressed.
  • We help them build confidence through development of their leadership competence and through realizing that confidence is also psychological. It is, as my husband and business partner, Bob, often says, “there for the taking.”
What are the most destructive traits you’ve seen from leaders under pressure, and how could they have been avoided?
  • Anger, especially unleashing anger at subordinates, is the most destructive. It destroys morale, destroys trust, and makes a psychologically safe environment impossible. And we know now how essential a safe environment is to performance and to innovation. See Charles Duhigg’s famous NY Times article about Google’s research, or read Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. To avoid anger, it’s essential to learn to step back and calm yourself, putting a space between stimulus and reaction to actually choose your response. Meditation helps develop that ability, as does cognitive reframing. We call the ability to choose and manage emotions “emotional mastery.”
  • Less destructive to others but just as destructive to the bottom line is the tendency for leaders to become more controlling under pressure. Bob saw a great example of that when a leader he was coaching got a customer call upset about a product failure. The leader called his team together, and he said that his first instinct was to tell his team what he thought should be done and tell them to go execute. He then remembered discussions from coaching, and decided to ask each person on the team, one by one, what they would do. He said that the resulting ideas were much better than the one he had come up with, a crisis was averted, and the relationship with the customer improved.
  • One particularly destructive response to pressure from above is blaming the boss or blaming the company. It’s always easy to build a relationship with someone else by gossiping about a third party, and when a leader tries to build a coalition of his team or department against the rest of the organization – an “ain’t it awful what the company expects of us” – the consequences are never good. Experienced, resilient leaders know how to push back effectively against unrealistic expectations or unwise policies, but complaining about those expectations to those below breeds a culture of mistrust and low performance.

Tim HuffTim Huff, Senior Consultant

How do you coach clients to handle pressure? One of the most important things I tell my clients when under pressure is to not lose sight of their authentic self. Pressure situations can often force leaders out of their sense of control and comfort, which might lead them to lose their sense of who they are, what their values are, and what’s most important to them. Keeping a solid sense of self and perspective can be very powerful to thriving in pressure situations. What are the most destructive traits you’ve seen from leaders under pressure, and how could they have been avoided? All too often, I see leaders under pressure react by falling into attack mode. They take out their stress on anyone around them through abrasive language or posturing in an attempt to retain some control over their situation. Most of the time, leaders either don’t realize their destructive behavior or they rationalize it as a valid response to their situation. This can usually be avoided by recognizing the triggers that’s threatening their loss of control, taking a pause, taking a deep breath, and regaining control of their reactions. Not easy to do, but critical for effective leadership under pressure!  

Barb ReillyBarbara Reilly, Ph.D., Senior Consultant

How do you coach clients to handle pressure? Here are a few tips I Recommend:
  • Separate out what is in your control and not in your control – maximize your response to what’s in your control and mitigate the stress of the not in control items with contingency strategies.
  • Don’t go it alone. Drawing a blank? Having a blank page freeze? Grab a partner and talk it out. Take notes. No more blank page.
  • Take a mindful moment. Even 30 seconds of deep breathing can add to clarity and composure.
  • Have a mantra that works for you. If you find yourself over indexing on pressure and worry, try this on for size: It all works out with ease and grace.

Bill Dickinson, D. Min, RCC, Senior Consultant

How do you coach clients to handle pressure? When I know a client is under pressure, I applaud them for naming it. Or, I might respectfully name what I’m experiencing. Either way, my role is to offer compassion, care, and clarity. I stay with whatever feeling is being expressed, and coach to their immediate next steps for focus and confidence.    

Viktoria AbelsonViktoria Abelson, Senior Consultant – Healthcare

How do you coach clients to handle pressure? When talking about handling pressure, both personal and professional, I sometimes find that my clients ask the wrong question. Rather, they don’t ask all the right questions. Yes, we absolutely need tools and tips to reduce pressure, but we also need tools and tips to reduce pressure from happening in the first place. You may say to me that this is unrealistic, but I argue that that is not absolutely true. When making a plan for the day/week/month, ask yourself the following questions: 1) What projects/meetings/initiatives do I have? 2) What can come in the way of accomplishing any of the above? 3) What buffer time can I add in? 4) What will I do if other priorities or urgent matters come up? 5) How will I take a break when I need to? Taking a few minutes to plan, future proof, and taking an intentional break can help consistently reduce pressure, both at home and work.  

Chris McCusker, Ph.D., Senior Consultant

How do you coach clients to handle pressure? The game of handling pressure is won or lost long before a pressure situation is upon us. For example, research on crisis management shows that the costs of surviving and recovering from a crisis depend on what was done during the pre-crisis stage. Many things are critical for leaders to address pre-crisis. A good start is to assess strengths and weaknesses of your individuals, teams, and organization. We have tools for this, but “do-it-yourselfers” can initiate conversations on this topic at individual and team levels. Organizations can be assessed through analyzing readiness, SWOT, and thinking through scenarios. The leader team itself must prepare by becoming aware of their strengths and weaknesses. There is a risk that old, bad habits emerge under pressure. When in crisis or under pressure if you are in charge, take charge! But don’t be a hero, be a heroic team. And a team of complementary strengths has taken the first step of preparing for a crisis.   Want to get to know our consultants and staff? Check out their bios!