MT EXPERT: What really happens when your team is under pressure

Contrary to popular belief, people don't perform best when their backs are against the wall. It's up to their leaders to make them work well, says Virginia Eastman.

by Virginia Eastman
Last Updated: 21 Mar 2014

From M&A teams to management consultants and advertisers to auditors, just about everyone will say that one of the things they love about their job is the challenge of having to perform under pressure. It's pretty much a universal conceit that when our backs are against the wall, we will come out fighting, doing our best work with all our problem solving creativity channelled effectively towards the task at hand.

But guess what? That's not what happens. Last week some of our media clients at Saxton Bampfylde heard from Harvard academic Dr. Heidi Gardner, who shared the surprising results of her research into how teams perform under pressure.

All of the best practices of creating space to listen to the youngest member of the team fly out the window as soon as the leader utters the phrase 'this project is too important to fail.'

The implication from the team leader – ‘we're in the hot seat’ – generally means the group succumbs to hierarchy. Gardner's research, among hundreds of professional services teams, shows how we switch into failure prevention mode when we are put under intense pressure.

She observed team members getting up to refill their cups when the youngest member of the team was speaking, eye rolling and jibes thinly veiled in humour, but clearly designed to undermine alternative ideas.

Human dynamics reinforce common knowledge: people give out many clues about what they are thinking at a subconscious level. They smile and nod when someone is talking and saying things they already know and agree with. Flip this, and think about the face of someone who is hearing something they are not familiar with for the first time. Often they will frown, not make eye contact, even look up to one side as they process this new information.

Stress is a negative state and as human creatures, we try to dispel it as quickly as possible by taking back control. In a team situation, the effect is to become risk averse and lose any chance of a real 'wow' result for the client. There won't be any breakthrough moments, no ‘bet the farm’, ‘save the day’, ‘eureka’ insights. Instead there is a tried and tested approach, which we know is not going to fail.

Gardner observed that just when the stakes are highest and teams need to be at their most creative, they turn in middling scores. Their clients are less than wowed. What can be done? Luckily, there are a couple of useful tactics that can help disrupt this kind of scenario.

Take 10 minutes at the start of every meeting to get everyone in the team to say what experience they are bringing and reflect on what they hope to contribute. This shifts the dynamic and means peers are empowered to hold each other to account, even in the face of a steamrollering leader. What you want is 'Fred knows the client best, let's hear from him on this point.'

If a team is mid-project and it feels as though the creative sap has already begun to drain the face of a high-stress, high-pressure assignment, bring in a trained facilitator to relaunch the team. Another tactic to change behaviour is to video meetings. Gardner advises, 'throw the first tape away, but by the second, everyone will be back to their usual selves and you will see where the problems lie’.

Get this right and the organisational rewards are huge. High performing teams want to work together again. People who feel ‘heard’ feel energised. They know that their contribution is heard and therefore feel that there is meaning in their work. That's a powerful reason to stay with a company if you feel it is empowering you to do your best work.

- Virginia Eastman leads the TMT Practice at search firm, Saxton Bampfylde. Heidi K. Gardner, PhD is on the faculty at Harvard Business School.

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