Leading under pressure

I’m preparing a class on leadership and the role of a head / vp of product management and development for an online course on product management (to be launched on September 2018, in Portuguese).

For this reason, I’m revisiting and updating some articles I wrote about leadership. This one is based on two articles, Under Pressure and It’s all About the People, both originally published on February, 2011. Even thought these articles are only 7 days a part, only now, more than 7 years latter, I was able to see the connection between them.

Leading under pressure

There’s no such thing as “no pressure” workplace environment. I don’t know any workplace where people say goals are easy, there are no risks to deliver the target or that the project will be delivered on time with 100% confidence. If the company is growing fast, people need to sustain or improve this growth rate. If the company is in a crisis, people need to get the company out of the crisis.

And honestly, this is good! Actually, this is the only way of getting things done! Simple put, people need pressure to do things.

Here’s what leaders need to know about pressure. People, including leaders and the people they lead, receive pressure from outside (the goal, the target date, lack of resources) as well as from inside (motivation, drive, inner strength).

Think of people and teams like balloons

A good analogy I like to use, specially when outside pressure increases, is that people and teams are similar to balloons. We need to balance pressure from outside with pressure from inside with some tendency to have a bit more pressure from the outside in order to guarantee the best performance. If we put too much pressure from outside, without providing people the tools needed to increase inside pressure, the balloon will explode, i.e., performance will decrease, people may get upset, sometimes even get sick (burnout) and they’ll probably leave the company. Sometimes we may see some increase in performance right after an increase in outside pressure, but we should not get fooled but the initial results. They are not sustainable if inside pressure is not increased. This increase in performance will last a few days and then performance will decrease to levels even lower than when we increased external pressure.

How can we improve inside pressure? No one can impact directly the inside pressure of anyone. This can only be done indirectly. Here are some tools:

  • We must hire people with the right motivation, drive and inner strength and we must create the environment so these people can maintain the right motivation, drive and inner strength. Think about alignment of purpose, vision, values, culture and financial and non-financial incentives.
  • We must support the right balance between pressure and no-pressure. We can do this by incentivizing people to turn off from workplace pressure and do other things they love such as exercise, yoga, meditation, playing music, brewing, reading, spending time with their loved ones, cooking, partying, etc. On the other hand, we should avoid working long hours, overnight, during weekends and holidays. This tactic can and should be used, but only when necessary. If this becomes the norm, and not the exception, we are no supporting the right balance between pressure and no-pressure.

The balloon analogy works for individuals as well as for teams. Too much pressure on a team without the appropriate inside pressure will make the balloon explode. In the case of a team, it will start malfunctioning, team members will start pointing fingers and performance will drop. To increase inside pressure in a team in order to help them cope with increasing outside pressure we need to create an environment which fosters the creation of stronger bonds between team members so they can be more effective in responding to external pressure by being more resilient and more adaptive at the same time. More effective responses to external pressure require a mix of resilience and adaptation.

The balloon analogy is also good to explain why the best people decide to leave a companie. We can think of this situation as if there’s more internal pressure than external pressure. If a person or a team has more motivation, drive and inner strength than what the leader asks them or the company strategy requires from them, they’ll inflate the balloon until it explodes. Then they’ll leave the company. And this brings me to the next topic of this article.

#1 priority

And here’s another very important advice for leaders, we must always put people as our #1 priority.

I often see companies stating that shareholder value, or revenue, or growth, or profit, or number of customers, or customer satisfaction is their #1 priority. All of that are good priorities and each one is appropriate to specific contexts a company may be in. However, I argue that they should always be #2 priority because our #1 priority must always be our team. Without the people that work with us, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to hit any other goal we have.

We spend money and energy attracting the best people and convincing them to join our team to build whatever it is we plan to build to hit the goal we set. We pay these people to be with us during all the building process. We normally get upset when we loose people from our team, specially if they proven to be really good. So the people in our team is like customers, we spend money and energy to acquire and to retain them. But they are even more important than our customers because without our team, there’s no way we’ll be able to handle our customers and achieve our goals.

This does not mean we need to be soft with our team, or that we should give everything they ask for. What we need to do is to proper balance outside and inside pressure so people can continuously improve. If outside pressure is increasing, we need to help people and team increase their inside pressure. We need to create the environment and provide the tools for people to be more motivated, have more drive and increase their inner strength. And if we have people or team with more inside pressure than outside pressure, we need to give them more outside pressure, more responsibilities or loftier goals.

Summing up

  • There’s no such thing as “no pressure” workplace environment. People and teams need pressure from outside (the goal, the target date, lack of resources) as well as from inside (motivation, drive, inner strength) to exist and do things, just like a balloon.
  • Inside pressure and outside pressure needs to be balanced with some tendency to have a bit more pressure from the outside in order to have continuous improvement.
  • Under pressure, a person and a team either explode or get stronger. It’s a leaders’s role to help the person or the team realize that and then work together with them to support the increase of internal pressure.
  • People is #1 priority of any company. We spend money and energy to acquire and to retain the best people. Having people as the #1 priority is the key to hitting any other goal. That doesn’t mean being soft with people or giving everything they want, but being able to proper balance outside and inside pressure so people can continuously improve.

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