Updated: Apr 14, 2019
How to prepare for and mange high-pressure periods, without burning out your team.
"Oh, there’s so much pressure at work” has become such a common remark, that it seems like nothing can be achieved without pressure. We’re all used to deadlines, launch-dates, due-dates, and other milestones, but every now and then a time comes that we really need to lead the organization through a peak effort in a high-pressure situation.
So how should we manage under high-pressure?
There are many tips and articles about motivating people to work more, and how to deal with the mental stress in these situations, but is that the way? Working more hours and increasing the pace can get us this far, with considerable costs. Aren’t there ways to get to significantly better results?
If we look at the practice of professionals, who are used to work in peaks of high-pressure, we’ll discover that the answer is - YES. There are.
Doctors in ER, air traffic controllers, firefighters, and soldiers are trained to work in situations that demand peak performance in a tight schedule. They don’t gather the team for a pep talk and just ask for tolerance and extra hours. They change the way they work.
That is to be: A work method or procedure for high-pressure situations that alter the way the organization works. Such a method decreases the mental stress and allows better performance over time.
So how does it work? Here are the 6 pillars:
The first and most important action a manager should perform is a clear declaration that we are entering a stressful situation. We switch mode. Pilots say "Declaring Emergency" to sync their co-pilot, the police have response codes, army bases use sirens.
You need to convene the people for a brief and clear briefing in order to make it clear that we are going to work differently now. Switching to a different work mode allows people to prepare on a personal level and be more flexible for the necessary changes because these changes are limited to the stress period only, and do not change the way things are done regularly. Such a declaration will also make it possible to return back quickly to business-as-usual (BAU), without the need to explain why we are changing the practices that worked in the short term.
2. Set a clear goal
In routine operation, a company balances many parameters: customer satisfaction, profitability, employee welfare, budget, compliance and obligations, quality of service and more. The mechanism in the organization is built to balance the various parameters, through meetings decisions and procedures. But in stressful situations, the mechanism can’t adapt fast enough. Therefore it is very important to clearly define the primary objective which we will direct to: a pilot declares whether to go for an emergency landing or return to the airport so that all the crew will act accordingly. A military commander defines whether preparations are being made for defense or attack. The doctor decides whether to treat injuries immediately or evacuate.
You need to define what the immediate goal is, what is the main parameter for success and what is the second priority. Is it more important to hit your revenue or reach profitability? finish the project on time or within the budget? Of course, we would prefer "both", but if two units in the organization act in different directions and interfere with each other’s activity, the result could be getting "none". These are difficult but necessary decisions and the earlier they are communicated, the better.
3. Adjust the communication procedures
In routine operation, there are clear definitions of who should report, consult or confirm regarding what, and when. In periods of stress, the procedures must be reexamined and changed temporarily - there will be issues where you would want a faster report and greater involvement because they are significant to the task. In times of pressure, there is no time for mistakes and your involvement is important. On the other hand, there are issues in which you prefer to delegate and give employees freedom of action to free your time and clear your focus. Be clear with yourself and communicate to the teams about how you would like to work during this period.
Consider setting up a war-room to pull together the information and decision-makers and establishing a hotline with important partners. It's a good idea to schedule frequent short update-calls and fewer long meetings to make sure that the important issues are addressed quickly (the less important ones will resolve by themselves).
4. Identify weak-points
You probably have examined the required work, and estimated where pressure points and bottlenecks are expected. We tend however to do this only on the operational level, so remember to examine the management level as well - will the ability to identify faults be affected? Or the ability to diagnose the situation correctly? What about the decision-making mechanism - is it helping the process?
Identifying the vulnerabilities in managing the process in advance will allow you to define the right management tools to deal with those weaknesses. Maybe you need a special control team? Night meetings for debriefing today’s activities? Defining special decision rights for specific employees (e.g. dedicated budget).
Remember to examine not only how we work, but also how we manage and improve during the process.
5. Change how work is divided
On regular days, we correct standards and role definitions, in order to ensure specialization and efficiency along with keeping the interest and development of employees. During times of stress, it is important to create flexibility that allows dynamic allocation of tasks to prevent bottlenecks. Check who can assist, and with what, even if organizational conventions need to be broken. This is the time for creativity, lack of formality, and putting status and ego aside.
It is especially important to ensure that the pressure trickles down the pyramid - in situations of uncertainty, it is common to find the senior managers busy with urgent meetings while the junior employees are idle and waiting for decisions. Make sure to flip this state - push down clear guidelines and tasks to employees and release the managers. The managers are the most versatile people in the organization and those that are most effective in the field, it is important that they have the time to locate points of failure and roll up their sleeves to help where necessary.
6. Lower service-level
A well-known saying states that the most important management skill is knowing what NOT to do. It is the most difficult advice to implement because you have to consciously harm something. Trying to act normally during a stressful period increases stress, undermines the focus on what matters most, and causes the organization to make mistakes due to over-stressed workforce.
When air traffic controllers detect "overload" (too many planes in a too span of time) they delay flights and do not allow irregularities to control the load. On major road incidents, policemen block surrounding traffic to allow an effective response, and hospitals send home a small number of lightly wounded patients when there is a multi-casualty incident.
It takes courage to decide to lower the service-level of services your organization provides. But the sooner you do that, in a controlled manner, you will be able to minimize the damage of uncontrolled collapse. This will allow you to direct time and energy to handle more important matters. In this case, "positive thinking" and the mentality of "it will be alright" will bring you down. It's great to aim to be 10, but remember that it's better to go down to 8 by choice, than to drop all the way down to 4. Save your resources for the possibility that things will get even more complicated….
It is similar to how our body works - when our brain detects a stressful situation (like a tiger on a close hill looking at you...) it stops some of the body systems to ensure that those that are important now will function in full capacity. It’s time to run, not to be hungry.
The actions defined here refer to management at the time of an event. I hope you read this at a less stressful time, so you can prepare - For each of the sections, you can make action plans in advance, set checklists of activities and maybe even conduct drills in which your team could practice, so that everyone in the organization will be calm and in control when the real pressure arrives.