Under pressure we are prone to underperform.
It plays out like this. A manager has a few concerns about one of her direct reports. She also sees untapped potential. Over the past year the person hasn’t really improved. The manager decides it’s time to have an honest conversation and really help this person up their game. She fully intends to be open and honest, but instead she softens the message, asks lots of leading questions and eventually makes some suggestions.
None of this is what she planned or even believes is effective, but it happened anyway. The direct report knows something is wrong, but the performance issues were never really discussed. So, nothing really changes.
Sound familiar? We have worked with thousands of leaders who operate like this, and it’s time to change this type of behavior. For change to happen, we must first recognize what we are doing and then understand why we do it.
Why It Happens. The Primitive Brain
Think about a time when you had a tough conversation that didn’t go well. It started out alright. You managed to raise a difficult issue. But the other person just didn’t respond the way you’d hoped that they would. You felt you were right, but they just didn’t get it. Because you “know” that pushing harder just keeps raising the tension, you caught yourself and defaulted to “agree to disagree”. You both walked away relieved that things didn’t escalate any further, but nothing was resolved. What a waste of time and energy!
Why get caught up in a dynamic that just doesn’t work? The short answer is your amygdala, the part of the brain designed to protect physical and emotional well-being. It’s a sensor that looks for threats, and when there is conflict, tension or danger, signals the body to focus resources on survival.
Imagine crossing the street and, suddenly, a speeding car is heading straight for you. Your brain tells your body to release stress hormones, and you get a surge of energy that spurs you to jump to safety. In a split second, you’re more aware, awake, and laser-focused. That’s your amygdala in action. In this case, is definitely a good thing. It’s just not such a good thing when it causes you to avoid a stressful conversation that really needs to happen.
Your Brain Under Pressure
Thanks to the groundbreaking research of the late Dr. Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School, we know how leaders behave in real time when under pressure. Argyris’ original research studied 8,000 leaders in organizations around the globe, and determined that all people in all cultures defaulted to certain behaviors when under moderate stress.
- This universal pattern of behavior includes:
- Maximizing comfort and minimizing stress
- Win/lose mentality
- Trying to appear “professional”
The Importance of Your “Executive Brain”
Applying neuroscience to leadership, we know exercising leadership requires more of the prefrontal cortex part of our brain, also known as the “Executive Brain.” That’s where cognitive functions like making trade-off decisions, distinguishing among different options, and analyzing risk take place. Recognizing how our brains react under stress and anxiety is key to changing how we show up as leaders.
It takes discipline, focus, and practice to catch and correct yourself when you fall prey to the inherited behavior patterns. The goal is to stop struggling to manage stressful situations, and to start leading in a way that builds trust and creates value.
Where Leadership Development Falls Short
For that to happen leaders need a real breakthrough. One that enables them to rely on new ways of being when they need it most—when they’re under pressure. That breakthrough does not come from more competencies or more reminders about what they ought to be doing. Leaders are sick of hearing it. There simply isn’t much that’s new that we can tell them anymore. What they need are transformative experiences that show them how their default ways of leading are getting in the way.
Leaders have decades of training under their belts and it has helped, but today’s challenges simply demand more. They need development that drives a deep change in mindset. They need practical and powerful ways of handling the tough stuff by engaging different parts of the brain. And they need practice….and practice….and practice. Practice is what builds the competence and confidence they need so that in the real world under pressure, they don’t revert to bad habits.
Three Ways to Get Your “Executive Brain” Working
So what can leaders do? Here are three ways to get started.
1. Collaborate on problem-solving, not just action planning.
2. Get agreement on the underlying issues before you try to get agreement on actions.
3. Be as open to having your mind changed as you want the others to be.
Susan West brings Fortune 500 experience and leadership insights to help individuals lead at a higher level. She has 25+ years’ experience in leadership and organization development, talent management, and enterprise-wide change. Susan is a member of the Executive Education faculty at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management and Cambridge Leadership Group. Born in New York, she is based in Brussels.