How leaders keep their cool under pressure

When the heat is on, good leaders know how to keep calm and help others stay that way too.

We’ve all been there – those peak-stress moments at work where it would be so easy to give in to an emotional reaction. But good leaders have a way of keeping calm even when the pressure is on, says Fraser Marlow, head of research at BlessingWhite.

“One of the characteristics of a strong leader is grace under pressure,” writes Marlow. “It's the ability to control one's own emotions, and the ability to help others remain level-headed when emotions are at a risk of rising. Anthropologists would tie this characteristic back to the alpha-male or alpha-female trait: when the group is in danger, it helps to have a strong leader who can think clearly even under extreme pressure, knowing when to stand and fight or when to flee.”

Marlow notes that our brains are a composite of three levels of evolution. In any given situation, one of these three will take a dominant role in controlling our behavior:

  • the reptilian brain, which manages immediate body functions (heart rate, breathing, balance, etc.);
  • the neocortex, which is associated with rational thinking, language, imagination, and consciousness;
  • the limbic brain, which is believed to be the seat of the value judgments we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour.

The limbic brain has little capacity for ambiguity, says Marlow. “Whenever logic or reason is called for, a limbic response is a poor guide.”

In cases where drama occurs in the workplace, good leaders have a two-step process for steering people away from an emotional response back to a rational and objective one.

Step 1:

Identifying limbic behaviour. “When it comes to one's own behaviour, this is easier said than done,” says Marlow. “Within your own train of thought, these extreme and volatile statements will make perfect sense. But to people listening to you, the statements will sound grossly overstated and polarized.” He quotes Terry Pearce (Leading Out Loud, 3rd edition, Josey Bass 2013, p25-26):

"Operating eighty-thousand times faster than the thinking part of the brain, the emotional limbic lobe (through its messenger-switch the amygdala) pushes us to react to emotional stimuli, much of the time before we know what we are doing. Hence in situations that may be tense, we retort rather than respond, often with consequences we would not have chosen. […] Leaders are rarely made aware of their knee-jerk reactions. Instead, they are often left wondering about the lack of response or are surprised to receive adverse reactions to their spontaneous retorts."

Marlow says that once leaders have an understanding of the mechanisms of limbic responses, they can start to recognize the signs in themselves. He quotes Dr. Srini Pillay, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group (NBG), who points out that “in order to control your emotions effectively, your brain needs to be fairly relaxed….Stress is an added load – it makes emotional control more difficult. For this reason, leaders would be well advised to look more closely at their stress or burnout levels."

Step 2:

Diffusing drama in others. This means listening and responding with empathy. But it has to be a certain kind of listening. Trying to calm others down with logic won’t necessarily work, because the person has a decreased capacity for logic in such a situation. This will cause his or her emotions to increase even more.

“For this reason it's important that, when faced with an emotional situation, we listen actively and show empathy for the other person, reflecting his/ her emotion and thus validating it. Only after doing that will the individual be able to engage in more logical, rational conversation and focus on problem solving.

“By listening you learn what motivates others, what concerns them, and how they view themselves, their work, and the organization. Listening actively builds trust, which leads to increased confidence, satisfaction, productivity, collaboration, and ultimately engagement.”