Displaying grace under pressure

5 Strategies to keep your cool


Published on: April 2021

Written by: Suzanne Bates

As 2021 rolls along, as leaders we are focused firmly on the future, setting the vision for post-pandemic growth and innovation, and long-term success. CEO optimism is high, buoyed up by signs of economic recovery and rapidly expanding opportunity. But the pressure is still on to galvanize the troops, figure out the new hybrid back-to-work model, and leapfrog the competition to deliver on shareholder promises. Gone is the day to day uncertainty that came with the early pandemic. In its place is a driving need to create momentum, re-inspire teams who are fatigued and flagging, and reinvigorate a culture of collaboration and innovation. It is a new kind of stress, but one that can be still be overwhelming. How can we keep our cool?

Displaying grace under pressure is a cultivated skill, not something we are born knowing how to do. We learn through experience and practice. Yet many of us ourselves are tapped out. Patience is thin, and demands are high to accelerate the pace of growth and recovery. And we cannot hide, because now is the moment of opportunity that requires our full attention and our best selves.

Unfortunately, composure in leadership is uncommon. In new research, we analyzed responses by over 39,000 people who rated their leaders on qualities of executive presence, including composure. Of the fifteen qualities measured, composure ranked last. And almost all surveys were conducted before the COVID-19 crisis struck.

We measure six behaviors related to composure, and while some were higher than others, none of these six made it into the upper 50% in leader ratings. So there’s clear evidence in the best of times that composure is rare. Why is this such a critical finding for today’s leaders?

Composure in demanding times is crucial to creating psychological safety. People will not feel safe sharing bad news if they believe you will overreact. In fact, they will avoid you. The result is you will not hear timely information that is vital for perspective-taking and decision making as you look to move fast and accelerate growth.

Composure in leaders also makes them credible. We believe in them. If you fail to show grace under pressure, people may forgive you, but they will be less likely to follow you. Composure creates conditions for other people to think clearly, act in a timely way, and get the right things done. Right now, this is job one for all leaders to keep their companies on track to deliver on your strategy for growth.

What types of behaviors help you show your composure? We ask people to rate the leader on these six statements.

  • Knows how to shift others from a reactive to a proactive frame of mind.
  • In critical moments seems to be at his/her best.
  • Is frequently a source of stability when others are flustered.
  • Knows how to de-escalate emotions and focus discussion.
  • Has a calm, thoughtful style that helps make sensitive issues discussable.
  • Prompts a thoughtful attitude and objective perspective.

What are the best strategies for developing these qualities? Here are five suggestions.

1.   Hit pause.

If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it is to stay calm and carry on. Demonstrate that composure as business accelerates. In times of stress, be the one to hit the pause button and guide people to think clearly and then act decisively. Your composure, hard-won in hard times, will be an asset as you invite people to share challenges in a safe environment and discuss the options. Make it okay for people to share what is difficult; be the one they turn to for guidance. When you hear about an issue, take a breath, and give yourself a moment to regroup. Slow down, to speed up.

2.   Take the long view.

Most successful leaders have a bias for action. This bias was dialed up during a difficult business year, either because you had to be more agile in a downturn, or, because business sped up and you had to act. Action is important and, it can be an “over-strength” that can lead you to take short term action at the expense of long term gains. Ask yourself, what are the potential consequences of this action down the road? Use the Power of 10. Instead of just considering what to do in the next 10 minutes or 10 hours, ask yourself and others what are the consequences 10 weeks, 10 months, or 10 years from now? This will call up a longer time horizon so you can be strategic and attend to the long term.

3.   Examine emotions.

Emotion creates a chain reaction in others. Ask yourself, how am I feeling about this? If you are angry, tired, fatigued, or discouraged, these emotions will have a domino impact on those around you. Interestingly the best way to manage your emotions is to acknowledge the feelings and name them.   Experiment with moving closer to those emotions, not ignoring them. Psychologists tell us that when we approach intense emotions, and then back away, it often makes them less powerful. Another proven technique for managing emotion is to use humor. Look for the levity and encourage others around you to do the same. Humor prompts us to step back from a situation and reset our emotional buttons, which also serves to broaden our perspective.

4.   Recharge.

Though many of us have been home, and traveling less during the global crisis, we have also worked longer hours, spent more time in virtual meetings, had fewer vacations, and many new family and work life challenges. Driving ahead, working long hours for this amount of time is unsustainable. You must recharge. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Don’t sacrifice doing things you love. Read, exercise, sleep, eat well, spend time on personal pursuits. Healthy stress management is rooted in physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

5.   Share your wisdom.

People need to be together, to talk, and hear from you in demanding times. Communicate more, not less, even if you don’t know exactly what to say. Speak from the heart and from experience. Encourage resilience, and share stories of people who are demonstrating it, as well. As a leader you must tell the truth, and show you are assessing the situation realistically. And, you must balance it with what author Kevin Cuthbert calls “bounded optimism.” Striking the right chord by communicating well will be a “viral” phenomenon that eclipses any uncertainty. Give people hope. Be there for them. Remarkably it will help you to cultivate and maintain your own composure.

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