top of page

Pressure creates diamonds…it also crushes cars. Find the balance to motivate your team to excellence

“I work really well under pressure”.

Really. I do! I suspect you do too, as do many of the people on your team. For many of us, the adrenaline kick we get from the pressure to perform can feel electric. A little uncomfortable, perhaps, but in that discomfort, we excel. It can drive us to shine, like a diamond borne from the high-temperature and high-pressure applied to carbon.

Pressure, discomfort, even a little bit of stress can often move people to action. In high-paced, high-pressure environments, it is a method that leaders use regularly. It is why we give unrealistic, unexpected deadlines (“I needed it yesterday”. Uh… really?!). The aim is to fire up our people, moving them out of their comfort zone into a stretch zone. The challenge and risk felt when stretched pushes people to find success through new experiences and rapid learning. And it is in that stretch zone that we see the magic happen and our people rise to the occasion. They find success here and we get what we want; they feel good and we feel good. Win-win!

However, while pressure and stress can be great short-term motivators, the long-term implications, when overused, are less favourable. Instead of feeling stretched, our people go too far and land in the burn-out zone.

So… how do you find the right balance to motivate your team to their best?

Why and how pressure can be a great force for delivery.

Think about the last time the pressure to perform pushed you to excellence. Maybe you successfully pitched and won business with a significant prospective client. Or you dealt with a critical management crisis within a tight deadline. Or maybe you beat your 10k personal best after initially starting at a slower pace. What was it about the situation that helped you to excel? The same things that help you excel when the right amount of pressure is applied is what helps your people to succeed:

  1. Fuel for action: Under high pressure and stress, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol feed into your system to break down the body’s cells and tissues. This provides the energy to push through the stress. It is this fuel that moves one to action. Like push starting a car, the initial force gets the blood flowing and muscles pumping, which is what motivates your people to action. This is especially impactful when moving out of a state of inaction or procrastination.

  2. Laser focus. Pressure and stress, by their nature, are focused. For example, if you are applying pressure to crush a bulb of garlic, you don’t spread the force across a large surface area. Instead, you try to keep it concentrated on one point to be most effective. Looking at it from a different angle, when you feel pressure or stress, it’s hard to look past the stressor. It is almost like having tunnel-vision. The advantage of this to your team is that it focuses the mind. And more specifically, it focuses multiple minds on what you are trying to achieve in the moment, which can increase your chance of success.

  3. Desire to win. Fight or flight. Survival mode. Do or die. We all know this feeling. When pressure hits, it’s our job to win at any cost. Because the other option is failure and failure is not an option. For your teams, this can be useful in motivating them to go for the win.

Short-term, this mode of operation can be effective. By applying pressure on your people, you can fuel them into action, keep them focused, and keep their desire to win.

However, the long-term implications can be draining and result in adverse outcomes.

Where it all goes wrong.

“I work really well under pressure”, he said 3 months before burning out.

It’s clear that pressure can yield great results, especially in fast-paced, intense, high-pressured environments and when working with high-achievers and performers who are capable of taking on a lot. We extrapolate that success we see and assume that more, constant success will equal more, constant pressure. This results in leaders defaulting to this same tactic by using speed, intensity and pressure to try to get more and more out of their people. It technically makes sense, yes. But not quite true. The problem with constant pressure is exactly that - it is constant, unrelenting, and unbalanced.

  • You quickly run out of fuel. Adrenaline is a strong fuel. It is also fast-burning, slow to replenish and not sustainable long-term. Eventually, you run-out. And if you keep pushing your people on empty it ultimately leads to stress and, in extreme cases, burnout. This is no good for them, you, or your business.

  • You miss out on the bigger picture. A narrow focus is great short-term for concentration, but if your people are jumping from one narrow focus to another, they miss out on the bigger picture of the situation, which narrows their understanding and the choices available to them. If you’ve ever given (or received) feedback about being more strategic, reflect on whether you are creating an environment that promotes constant fire-fighting, thereby making it harder for your team to be more strategic.

  • Your desire to win means others lose. Continuing to focus on winning all the time can take on a selfish view where others start to lose. This may result in missed collaboration opportunities and in the long-term, impair motivation, levels of satisfaction, and the productivity of others - the exact opposite of what you want, as a leader

When overused, this tactic pushes people out of the stretch zone (and the benefits that come with it) into the burnout zone (and its many disadvantages). Why put your people through that? Especially when there are more powerful and much healthier ways to achieve the same winning results.

What can I do about it?

Flex your leadership style based on the situations. Use pressure, sparingly and as a short-term solution when it is necessary and serves your ultimate goal. Use more powerful, sustainable and healthier methods to achieve greater results.

What are those more powerful and healthier methods?

  • Connect with your staff. Nothing motivates people more than feeling like they are part of a team that is led by someone they respect, trust, and feel loyal to. Someone that they want to go bat for like they would a family member. For that to happen, you want to build a genuine connection with your people by both sharing who you are and better understanding their aspirations, challenges, and motivations. After all, different people respond differently to different situations. By understanding what truly motivates each person on your team, you will be better equipped to flex your style and get the most from them.

  • Empower and coach your people to greatness. Nothing limits and demotivates people more than feeling like they aren’t valued and are just a replaceable cog in a wheel. Pressure often follows when leaders feel they must take over and (micro-)manage their people to their personal definition of success. What if, instead, you saw your employees as gifted and full of more potential than what is shown on the surface? Give them space and autonomy to step up into their potential. So your role becomes less about pressuring them to succeed on a case-by-case basis, but instead coaching them to greatness which results in increasing success across the board. Maybe they will see opportunities and solutions that you don’t, resulting in more success and less stress for you both. Sounds like a win-win!

  • Role-model through inspirational, inclusive leadership. Managers have subordinates who do what they are told. Leaders have followers who want to follow them to success. They do this by effortlessly motivating their teams through inspirational and inclusive leadership. They move people to action, not by dictating orders, but by leading through presence. They see their teams as a cohesive unit where everyone wins together. And because they see themselves as an equal part of that unit, they influence their teams by role-modelling the mindset, behaviours, and actions they want their teams to adopt and influence them to greatness in that way.

OTITO Challenge- Insights to Action.

What type of leader do you choose to be? Decide on one small change you wish to make in the next week that moves you closer to being the inspirational leader you want to be. And make the change.

Sign-up here to receive the OTITO Leadership Newsletter straight to your inbox.


bottom of page