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When we think of leadership qualities, we rattle off platitudes like inspiring, dynamic, visionary, etc. While these characteristics are key building blocks of leadership, our latest research spotlights one common leadership aptitude that doubles as many leaders’ Achilles Heel—communication. And, we’re not talking merely about words and messages. Rather, we’re talking about a leader’s ability to achieve dialogue under pressure—to be calm, collected, candid, curious, direct, and willing to listen in crucial moments of impact. When the stakes are high, can a leader bypass or navigate stress and pressure with effective dialogue? Can they communicate with their team in ways that lead to results, no matter how high the stakes?

Unfortunately, our latest research shows a shocking number of leaders buckle under pressure. When the stakes grow high, 1 out of 3 leaders fail to reach even the minimum requirements of dialogue—in reality, they don’t even come close. Specifically, when under stress:

  • 53% of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • 45% are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • 45% ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • 43% are more angry and heated than cool and collected.
  • 37% avoid or sidestep rather than be direct and unambiguous.
  • 30% are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest.

And this type of behavior is more than just unprofessional or embarrassing. For someone in a leadership position, acting emotionally, impulsively, and violently hurts the team in several nuanced and destructive ways.

We asked 1,300 people to describe their manager’s style under stress and the impacts their leader’s style had on both their personal and their team results. And what we found is that a leader’s inability to communicate in high stakes, stressful situations directly impacts team performance. Specifically, managers who clam up or blow up under pressure have teams with low morale; that is more likely to miss deadlines, budgets, and quality standards; and that act in ways that drive customers away.

But key results aren’t the only thing on the chopping block. A leader’s brash communication style has a major domino effect on morale. Specifically, when a leader fails to practice effective dialogue under stress, his or her team members are more likely to consider leaving their job than teams that are managed by someone who can stay in dialogue when stressed. They are also more likely to shut down and stop participating, less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities, more likely to be frustrated and angry, and more likely to complain.

On the bright side, the study also highlighted an opportunity for positive change. Leaders who can stay in dialogue, despite external pressure, see better results from their teams. Leaders who remain calm, collected, candid, curious, direct, and willing to listen—no matter the pressure or how high the stakes—lead teams that are not only happier and more engaged, but tend to:

  • Meet quality standards 56% more of the time than teams whose manager does not achieve a dialogue.
  • Act in ways that benefit customers 56% more of the time.
  • Meet deadlines 47% more of the time.
  • Improve morale 47% more of the time.
  • Improve workplace safety 34% more of the time.
  • Achieve budget 25% more of the time.

Another silver lining? A manager’s ability to deal with high-stakes, stressful situations has nothing to do with age or gender. Neither factor correlated with the skills and behaviors of dialogue under pressure. And this is a key finding because our ability to stay in dialogue when stakes are high is not dependent on genetic or inherent factors. Rather, these are skills anyone can learn and adapt to not only be more personally effective and influential but to better lead a team to success. Below are a few tips managers can use to improve their style under stress and see better results from the people they lead.

  • Speak up early. When we anticipate stress, most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at dialogue don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and often worsen the situation—and their reaction to the situation—as they begin to work around the problem. When you speak up early, it makes things easier later on. Remember, what you permit you also promote.
  • Challenge your story. When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling negative stories that absolve us of responsibility. We villainize others to exaggerate perceived negative attributes. And we victimize ourselves to make us out to be innocent sufferers who have no role in the problem. These stories cause us to feel helpless to our situation thus rationalizing our over- or under-reactions. Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.
  • Start with facts. When the stakes are high, our brains often serve us poorly. To maximize cognitive efficiency, we store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do and use that information to realign your feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction. Hint: your opinions are not facts. Facts are things you see, hear, observe, and can measure.
  • Create safety. When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others get defensive to or retreat from, your tirade. People don’t get defensive because of the content of your message, but because of the intent, they perceive behind it. So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to working with you. Hint: don’t “sandwich” with compliments or butter people up. If you are going to make it safe, be very specific about your intent. And help them understand that 1) you share their goals, and 2) you respect them as a person.

About the authors: Justin Hale is a speaker, training designer, and Master Trainer at VitalSmarts, a leader in corporate training. He has been a lead engineer in designing the VitalSmarts edition of Getting Things Done® Training and has facilitated the course and delivered keynote speeches on the skills and principles of stress-free productivity to clients and audiences across North America.

Brittney Maxfield is the Senior Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts. She has lead publicity and marketing efforts for the company’s line of New York Times bestsellers and award-winning training courses for the past 13 years.

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