Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Grace under pressure: strategies for keeping cool in a crisis

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Andrew Atkins, Suzanne Bates

Over the past several months, our lives have been upended by the global pandemic. The adjustments to life we anticipated as temporary are morphing to new, still largely unfamiliar ways of working and living. Our teams have endured these changes as well, and we have also tried to help them manage it all. All this while leading transformation to our companies processes, systems, products, and operations. We are not going back to life as it was, but turning a page.

The sheer length of time we have managed this level of stress has a compounding impact on our physical, mental, and emotional health. While hope is on the horizon for an end to the current pandemic, it does not change this fact. In addition, people around us face challenges — our parents, spouses, colleagues, employees. We may not wish to acknowledge even to those closest to us that we are experiencing anxiety, frustration, and even anger and depression. As a result, we may lose our cool more than we would like to admit.

Losing your cool is not a weakness. It is a sign that you are human. Deep emotions are part of life’s struggle. Successful people hold themselves to high standards. Sometimes, we fail.

It is important to look at these feelings not as failure, but an opportunity to mature and display even more grace under pressure without sacrificing our mental and emotional health. Composure is a cultivated skill, nurtured in part through self-care, and in part through new learned behaviours. We are not born knowing how to do this. We learn it through experience and practice.

Interestingly, composure in leadership is not as common as one might hope. Our research analyzed responses from over 39,000 people who rated their leaders on qualities of executive presence, including composure. The result: of the 15 qualities measured, composure ranked last. And almost all surveys were completed before the COVID-19 crisis struck.

In our work we measure six behaviours related to composure. While some ranked higher than others, only one barely made it into the upper 50 per cent in leader ratings. So there is clear evidence that even in the best of times, leadership composure is rare.

If you fail to show grace under pressure, people will be less likely to follow you.

Why is this such a critical finding for today’s leaders? Because composure in the midst of a crisis is crucial to creating psychological safety, an area Amy Edmondson has explored extensively. People will not feel safe sharing bad news if they believe you will overreact. Instead, they will avoid you, and the result is that you will not hear timely information that is vital for perspective-taking and decision making in times of crisis. 

Composure in leaders also makes them more credible. It makes us believe in them. If you fail to show grace under pressure, people may forgive you, but they will be less likely to follow you. Research shows that composure creates conditions for other people to think clearly, to act in a timely way, and to get the right things done. Right now, these things are job one for all leaders to keep their companies stable and forging ahead.

What types of behaviours help you show your composure? We asked people to rate the leader on the following 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? We have six suggestions.

1) Hit pause 

Leaders lacking composure will react reflexively rather than generating and evaluating options. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how reflexive, emotional, autopilot responses, or fast thinking, can often have unanticipated consequences and be biased and illogical. In times of stress, our reflexive default thinking and behaviour shows up as a loss of composure. In contrast, slowing down our thinking enables us to engage our reasoning and allows us to be more composed.

Insert some space to create a moment before you respond. Ask questions. Buy yourself time before responding by listening to the answers. Take a breath and count to ten to calm down and reduce the reflexive thinking that often hijacks us and causes us to overreact. If you have a cup of water or coffee, take a drink to provide a moment to collect your thoughts.

2) Take the long view

Most successful leaders have a bias for action. They move ahead by quickly dispatching with problems. This over-strength often leads to precipitous decisions that have unintended consequences. Ask yourself, What are the potential consequences of this decision if conditions change? 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 will the consequences be 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.

You might also go a step beyond anticipating the likely outcomes of an action or decision and explicitly ask, “What are possible unintended or unanticipated outcomes?” When one of our clients took this extra step before committing to a plan, they realized that their actions could have precipitated a regulatory audit.

3) Examine emotions

Emotion creates a chain reaction, sparking similar, and often stronger reactions in others. Ask yourself, How am I feeling about this? Let yourself feel the emotion. Acknowledge if you are fearful or angry. 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 humour. Look for the levity and encourage others around you to do the same. Humour prompts us to step back from a situation and reset our emotional buttons, which also serves to broaden our perspective.

In a crisis, you should communicate more, not less — even if you don’t know exactly what to say.

4) Recharge

Successful people push relentlessly through challenges. Driving ahead, working longer hours, and worrying through the evening might help you solve a short-term problem, but this approach is unsustainable. Make no mistake: you will burn out.

It may seem counterintuitive, but you are a better problem-solver when you recharge. Always remember to put on your own oxygen mask first. Don’t sacrifice doing things you love. Read, exercise, sleep, eat well, spend time on personal pursuits. Practicing self-care is essential. Your vacation or recreation plans may have evaporated or been drastically curtailed, but you still need to take time to step back from your work responsibilities. Healthy stress management is rooted in physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

5) Recognize your triggers

A loss of composure is episodic, rather than constant. A change triggers an emotion-laden reaction. Our self-image, professional drive, and personal standards can contribute to unrealistic expectations that we fight to meet. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, this presented a challenge. With the added stresses of a loss of work routines and balancing work and home responsibilities, triggering situations abound.

Let go of expectations about what you should be able to do — with new home-based demands to care for children whose summer plans changed, to support a spouse who may have lost a job, or housebreaking a new puppy, you may feel stretched and frustrated that you can’t do it all. Recognizing and accepting the new normal can help you reset your expectations. Also, take stock of the demands you place on yourself. Identify what it’s OK to live with, rather than striving to maintain an unrealistic ideal.

6) Share your wisdom

People need to be together, to talk, and hear from you in a crisis. 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 that you are assessing the situation realistically. You must also balance this with what author Kevin Cuthbert calls bounded optimism. Striking the right chord by communicating well will be a viral phenomenon that eclipses any health pandemic. Give people hope. Be there for them. Remarkably, this will help you to cultivate and maintain your own composure.

In closing

At an unprecedented time like this, new challenges have been added to every leader’s agenda. Moving forward will demand that they summon all of their strength and resilience. Showing composure and grace under pressure will ensure that their followers are also moving in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Rotman Management magazine.

Andrew Atkins leads the Research, Innovation and Practice team at Bates. In 2014 and 2015, Trust Across America named him one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders on workplace trust. He has held senior leadership positions with Bank of America, Genuity, Fidelity Investments, Arthur D. Little, and Interaction Associates. 
Suzanne Bates is CEO of Bates Communications, a global consulting firm whose clients include CVS, Dow Chemical and Fidelity. She is the author of All the Leader You Can Be: The Science of Achieving Extraordinary Executive Presence (McGraw -Hill 2016) and four other best-selling books.