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What Happens When Peak Performance Meets Peak Pressure?

Today’s leaders know all about performance under pressure – they do it every day!  It is a vital, if unwritten, aspect of their job descriptions. But what happens to performance under intense and unrelenting levels of pressure? In particular, what are the implications of such, so called ‘Peak Pressure’ conditions, for achieving and sustaining peak levels of performance?

The Key Points:

  • Performing under pressure – that was the situation in 2020 and 2021. Now, more and more leaders are performing under peak pressure.
  • The pandemic may be over, but the pressure has not waned. Indeed, for many these are the ‘PEAK' years -it is where peak performance meets peak pressure.
    Think of it as Peak times two!
  • The difference may just be an extra 5%, 10% or 15% pressure but that is enough to change the rules of the game.
  • Today’s leaders know all about performance under pressure – they do it every day!
  • But sustained peak performance in conditions of peak pressure is expecting too much.
  • In particular, the quality of complex important work is likely to suffer in conditions of peak pressure.
  • There is an assumption that people will continue to perform regardless of the level of pressure. This represents a dangerous organizational blindspot.
  • You are probably underestimating the level of pressure you are under and its impact on your performance, vitality and so on.
  • The level of pressure must be a key metric for any critical team – one that is watched and managed closely.
  • For critical projects and initiatives, pressure, if neglected, represents a significant risk.

The Real Challenge

‘If you think last year was high pressure you ain’t seen nothing yet’ said the Division Head in a bravado tone of voice. For a team already pushed to the limits, it was the last thing they needed to hear. But the leader’s words were not just ill-chosen or insensitive.  They were an indicator of a significant blind spot – one that most of us share to one degree or another.

Clearly, the leader could not see the risk that peak pressure represented to the success of the department’s ambitious projects and initiatives, as well as to the health and vitality of his over-worked management team.

Like so many other leaders, he was making a dangerous assumption: That his people will continue to perform at a high level, regardless of the level of pressure or the sacrifices that required (e.g. work-life balance) or impact on their vitality or well-being. 

When Peak Pressure Meets Peak Performance

There is a lot of talk about performance and peak performance in particular. But how much of it is applicable to senior leaders? Especially, when the real challenge isn’t just peak performance, but peak pressure too.

Today’s leader suite is the fascinating study of what happens when peak performance meets peak pressure. It is clear that: Organizations are more likely to generate peak pressure than sustained peak performance. That is because while peak pressure may be increasingly the norm, peak performance is not1.

The pandemic may be over, but the pressure has not waned. Indeed, for many these are the ‘PEAK' years -it is where peak performance meets peak pressure. Think of it as Peak times two!

Many senior leaders aren’t just operating under pressure, but PEAK pressure! The difference may just be an extra 5%, 10% or 15% pressure but that is enough to change the rules of the game when it comes to performance.

Peak pressure is when achieving peak performance becomes more complex and sustaining it becomes more difficult. It is when the level of pressure becomes a performance loss.  It is when you cannot realize 75% or more of your full time and energy motivation and skill.

What is Peak Pressure? Here are the many ways leaders describe peak pressure and its impact on them:

  • Peak pressure is when it feels like it's getting too much. 
  • It is when there is no let-up. It feels like it is impossible to stay on top of everything.
  • There is not enough time to think.  There is little time between meetings to plan or review what needs to be done. 
  • When you feel like you are hitting the law of diminishing marginal returns in terms of your performance.  You work harder but get less done.
  • When your energy and motivation are being zapped. When the quality of your work and the clarity of their decisions could be at risk.
  • When the lines between work and the rest of your life are being blurred.
  • When you can't sleep, don't exercise and are not eating well.
  • Your mood changes – you become angry, agitated or emotional more easily.
  • You are more negative, disengaged or experience less joy.
  • You don't have time for family or friends and besides you are not as nice to be around.
  • It is when you are not feeling well and health complaints start to appear or get aggravated.

Notice any of these factors for yourself or any of your colleagues?

Peak Performance Looks for the Exit

What happens when peak performance meets peak pressure? Well, the answer is peak performance starts looking for the exit2.

The reality is that realizing and sustaining peak performance under conditions of intense and unrelenting pressure is difficult, if not impossible.  

The quality of complex work, decision-making & analysis are put at risk. Also, at risk is collaboration & the quality of interactions.

Sustained peak pressure can damage team health & vitality. Overtime it can impact on team member well-being.

What Does ‘Peak' Mean?

It may be possible to achieve and sustain peak performance in a calm and relaxed environment where you can focus completely on the task, access the required resources and leverage your full talent and skill. But that is not the environment that most leaders work in today.

Few senior leaders work in low pressure environments. Ambitious projects, competing priorities, tight deadlines, scarce resources and stretch targets make performance under pressure the reality of modern business.  Add long hours, endless meetings, overflowing inboxes – it all amounts to an unrelenting level of pressure at work. There is the mounting pressure in our organizational environment as well as in an increasingly competitive and fast changing external environment3

Pressure Blindness

Most organizations are ‘in the dark’ about pressure levels & their impact on performance. Few measure pressure or give it any consideration. There is almost an assumption of limited bandwidth.

People nod in universal agreement about how the pressure at work has grown. But like the classic ‘Frog in Boiling Water’ story we often fail to realize the extent to which we are ‘in hot water’ when it comes to the level of pressure in our work and its implications.

In our fast-paced always-on culture we have started to take high levels of pressure for granted.  In many corporate environments the level of pressure is often misrepresented and what people suggest is 70% or 75% may actually be closer to 90% or more. That is why we define Peak Pressure as 75%+.  Although to some that seems low – think of it this way – it means operating at 90% for more than 80% of the time!  

Becoming More Pressure Aware

‘Like Bruce Willis in an action movie I used to think: Pressure… Sure, no problem… pile it on!!’ said one grey-haired senior leader.  ‘Now, I realize that I was fooling myself! …I don't deliver on my full potential when I am under-pressure – neither at work, nor at home!’

Whether based on years of experience or due to the mounting research, there is a growing realization that performing under intense pressure is great for climatic movies and nail-biting sports events. However, in the workplace high levels of pressure are often the enemy of peak performance, especially sustained peak performance.

‘We need to recalibrate how we measure pressure‘ said the busy leadership team member. ‘That is because we have forgotten what normal really is. A high level of pressure is taken for granted' he added. ‘Thus, when we say we are operating at 80% or 90% we are measuring it out of 120 and 140 rather than 100! Our 80% is actually 100%. Our 90% is over 100% and well into the realm of the unsustainable!' he concluded.

Peak Pressure impacts on the ability to realize and sustain peak performance.  In particular, it impacts on those strategic initiatives and critical projects that demand greater speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation.

Performing Under Pressure Is More Complex

Managing pressure is essential to driving performance. Leaders cannot drive performance if they are blind to pressure.

To enable people to spend more time in the zone of peak performance they need to be provided with the tools and support to manage pressure.

Leaders must also need to shield their teams from unnecessary sources of pressure (e.g. internal politics). Most important of all they must demonstrate the awareness and skills required to manage their own levels of pressure.

To optimize and sustain peak performance under conditions of peak pressure requires a set of more sophisticated strategies than those in use by many organizations.

Pressure mounts when the demands you feel exceed your capacity to meet them. In this way there are two strategies:

  • Reduce the perceived level of pressure (take things off the to-do list, reduce the level of noise and interference, etc.)
  • Increase the capacity to deal with it (build resilience, provide extra support, enable people to feel more in control/more agile, etc.)

One of the most powerful ways to reduce pressure is supportive behaviors among team members, as well as from leaders. This is not surprising with research pointing to ‘being part of a team' and ‘trusting your leader' as key to resilience4. High pressure environments must also be high support environments too.

‘Didn't anybody notice?' wondered the project coach. The member of the cross-functional team had just finished sharing their priorities for the coming quarter. After each person had shared their priorities they were asked if anything was ‘keeping them awake at night'. The responses were surprising in their honesty. Two members of the team, who visibly looked tired and stressed, had shared their fears about delays and setbacks that had befallen their resource-strapped teams. ‘They poured their hearths-out' but when the asked if they would like to comment the rest of the team said nothing. Not, an empathetic ‘I feel your plain' or a supportive ‘can I help you?' was to be heard'. What a lost opportunity for this team to demonstrate that ‘people have each others backs' concluded the coach in a tone of disappointment.

Pressure Audit & Reflection

In tackling peak levels of pressure, the first step is to acknowledge it and it's impact. With this in mind, reflect on the following questions:

  • How often do you experience peak pressure?
  • How does it manifest itself for you and for your colleagues?
  • What are the factors that contribute to peak pressure?
  • What are the implications of unmanaged peak pressure?
  • What are the strategies that work best for you in coping with peak pressure?
  • As a leader what is your responsibility when it comes to the level of pressure within your team and how it is managed?

These are questions you might like to explore with your coach or a trusted colleague. For example, are you as good at managing pressure as you think? Are you sufficiently attuned to the level of pressure o your team? Would you notice the warning signs that pressure may be impacting performance?

The opposite to fragile is robust. But now we are encouraged to think about fragility and robustness in a new way. That is in terms of things that are neither fragile nor robust in the traditional sense. They belong to a third category called anti fragile – in other words they benefit from pressure, disruption and even chaos5. They can turn disorder to their advantage. For example a project team that could have been ‘floored' by a dramatic shift in stakeholder needs, turns the disruption to their advantage by changing direction – embracing the new requirements and finding innovative solutions to meet them. This is possible because the team has the freedom to maneuver – it does not need to wait 3 months for permission (or sign off) to make it happen.  It can press the accelerator of innovation, because there are no brakes (bureaucracy) to its innovation. When pressure is applied, such an agile organization reacts by being more than just robust; performance actually improves as more pressure is exerted6 They are ‘anti fragile'

A Pressure Gauge is Necessary

The ultimate measure of any leader team is how well it performs under pressure. Or to be more precise how a team manages the level of pressure so that people can to perform to the fullest of their potential, consistent not just with sustained high performance but vitality and wellbeing too.

The level of pressure must be a key metric for any critical team – one that is watched and managed closely. In other words your team needs a pressure guage to show when the pressure is too high, as well as when it may be too low. The latter is important because too little pressure can also hinder performance, potentially signalling disengagement and demotivation.

The Pressure Metric is critical to understanding the performance and the potential of any important team, its health and vitality too. For critical projects and initiatives the pressure metric represents if neglected, a significant risk.

Importantly, pressure cannot be measured in isolation. Rather it needs to be tracked in the context of what we call the 4 BIG Numbers. Those are performance potential, vitality and collaboration. These represent a balanced scorecard for your team—revealing the relationships between pressure and the other ‘vital signs' for your team.

Moreover, the complex nature of the relationship between pressure and performance or potential needs to be considered. That is where pressure is both a cause and an effect. In this way, a full analysis of the team is required to understand the dynamics at play7.

So, what is the level of pressure experienced by your team at this time? How has this metric changed in recent weeks and what are the implications for your team's performance potential, its health and vitality too?




SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:





  1. Although most leaders spend some of their time in the 75%+ zone, peak performance is far from the norm, indeed the norm is just over 60%. Moreover, fewer than one in 20 teams are to be consistently found in the zone of peak performance. See Pitstop to Perform, Ray Collis & John O Gorman, ASG Group Press, 2018. []
  2. Peak Performance although much talked about often goes without definition. However, we say that a person or a team is operating at peak performance when it is realizing 75% or more of its full potential. That is of their full talent, creativity, passion and skill. []
  3. In addition to the demands of doing the work there is the noise and interference generated by the internal environment – the number of committees and internal meetings, the requirements of cross-functional collaboration, the level of bureaucracy or politics, and so on.  That is without even looking at the demands of the external environment – new technologies, increased competition and the accelerating rate of change. []
  4. Global Workplace Study 2020, Link: https://www.adpri.org/assets/17-findings/ []
  5. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) Paperback – January 28, 2014, Random House Publishing Group, 2014 []
  6. ‘The five trademarks of agile organizations' McKinsey Report by Wouter Aghina, Karin Ahlback, Aaron De Smet, Gerald Lackey, Michael Lurie, Monica Murarka, and Christopher Handscomb, January 22, 2018. Link: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-five-trademarks-of-agile-organizations []
  7. Take for example the analysis undertaken by Pitstop Analytics which covers 200 plus variables including design-related factors (right people in the right roles, etc.) and dynamics (i.e. behavioral norms or culture []

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