‘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.
There is a lot of talk about performance and peak performance in particular. But how much of it is applicable to senior executives? Especially, when the real challenge isn’t just peak performance, but peak pressure too.
Today’s executive 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 executives 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 executives describe peak pressure and its impact on them:
Notice any of these factors for yourself or any of your colleagues?
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.
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 executives work in today.
Few senior executives 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
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!
‘Like Bruce Willis in an action movie I used to think: Pressure… Sure, no problem… pile it on!!’ said one grey-haired senior executive. ‘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.
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:
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.
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:
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’
The ultimate measure of any executive 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?