Collaboration tends to suffer when it’s most needed: in times of extreme pressure or crisis. Findings from our analyses of the 2008 financial crisis underscore that pressure on individuals and teams can threaten collaboration—which means that those businesses miss out on opportunities for innovation, joint problem solving and other ways to tap into their employees’ collective brain. Your first job as a leader is to reduce the unnecessary pressures and unhealthy fears that tend to undermine collaboration. How can you do that?
Here are the top eight actions you can take to counteract the feeling of pressure, whether it is day-to-day stress or a real disaster.
1. Plan for the Onslaught
Some pressure is inevitable. So how do you prepare yourself and your teams to handle that pressure when it comes, allowing you to collaborate effectively when you most need to?
The first step is to make a plan for how your cross-silo work will play out in a crisis. Put structures in place that will facilitate communication, as needed. For example, are you convening people across departments? Remembering that the go-it-alone urge tends to arise under pressure, you need to identify specific ways that people, departments, and even the board will be able to tap into resources to help them navigate.
2. Check Your Instincts
People under pressure tend to “revert to their central tendencies,” as psychologists say. With pressure increasing, those tendencies typically become self-reinforcing: risk aversion or extreme risk seeking, individualism, over-communicating or under-communicating, micromanagement, trust where it isn’t warranted, and so on. Reflect on your behavioral tendencies and how they’ve manifested themselves in the past when you’ve been under pressure. With these patterns in mind, you’ll be more alert to the kinds of reactions on your part that could unintentionally undermine collaboration.
Encourage the team to do the same. A lot of people have blind spots, so use a psychometric tool for your group to unveil those foibles. Talk openly with your team about these possible pitfalls, so that people can help each other when crises do hit.
3. Get a Grip – and Take a Nap?
We observed a senior manager at a prominent consulting firm who was on track for promotion to partner. He was engaged in a big client project (“his” project) and—at least in his mind—the outcome would make or break his promotion prospects. His resulting anxiety and stress were translated directly to the team through his behavior in multiple meetings: a raised voice, unconstructive criticism, demands that the team work extreme hours, and so on. Constructive? Definitely not. Not only was the team starting to crack, but the client also saw these behaviors.
What’s our prescription for this collaboration-blocking manager? First, get some sleep. The prefrontal cortex in our brains is in charge of what psychologists call executive functioning. These are the higher-order cognitive processes—such as reasoning, organizing, and managing one’s inhibitions—that are at the core of collaborative leadership. Although other brain areas can cope relatively well despite too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. So, when leaders are tired, collaboration suffers, because those leaders tend to seek fewer different perspectives and are less capable of weighing the relative significance of different inputs accurately.
They’re also inclined to succumb to bias, which dampens smart collaboration. In a sleep-deprived state, your brain is more likely to misinterpret contextual cues and to overreact to emotional events, and you tend to express your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice. Recent studies have shown that people who have not had enough sleep are less likely to fully trust someone else. Another experiment has demonstrated that employees feel less engaged with their work when their leaders haven’t gotten enough sleep.
4. Conduct an Intervention (or Two)
At the same time, manage others. This starts inside the organization. Identify those around you who are mishandling the pressures you’re facing collectively. (See the symptoms just listed: overreacting, being consistently negative, and so on.) Most organizations today run engagement surveys or use 360 feedback tools to identify teams that need help. It’s a short step from there to finding the individuals on those teams who need help. Give them that help. Provide them with professional coaching, which is often the best way for people in trouble to hear that their behavior is counterproductive.
Pay particular attention to your remote staff and distributed teams. Geographic differences (the London office versus the Tokyo office) create natural fault lines that become accentuated in times of heightened pressure. Make sure your teams are aware of the underlying issues that can create these fault lines and watch for them to emerge. Any isolation and loneliness people are experiencing may be further compounded when they work remotely. Increase the frequency of communication around goals, expectations, the responsibilities of team members, and deadlines to lower the anxiety that naturally arises when people feel isolated.
5. Check Clients’ Behaviors
Also look outside the organization. Take a hard look at your clients. Yes, the customer is always right—until they start mistreating your employees. If that’s happening, you need to make it clear that abusive pressure will only make existing problems worse. If it comes down to it, you may need to fire that client. A consulting firm that we worked with recently stopped doing business with a regional public transportation agency. The publicly stated reason was “creative differences,” but privately, our clients told us they could no longer live with the agency’s efforts to reach into their firm and divide and conquer—that is, playing one employee off another, in a context where collaboration within the firm and between the firm and the agency was critically important.
Similarly, other outside stakeholders can be a major source of undue stress. Let employees know that they can raise the issue with you if suppliers, regulators, or others are raising the heat too much – and that you’ll back up your team in a way that’s fair and compassionate.
6. Rise to the Occasion
Lightning will strike. When it does, great leaders step up and get the best from their people. Conversely, failed teams make bad situations worse.
Reducing this challenge to its essence, you need to strike the right balance. The worst leaders we’ve seen take a small problem and magnify it, turning an X-size issue into a 10X-size one. Yes, you have to communicate a sense of urgency. (Shielding your team from legitimate pressure is ineffective and unsustainable.) But you need to do so in a way that creates positive energy. Set the bar high. Push the team to deliver their best—which of course they are helping to define— but give them the support they need to get there. Talk less about stress, and talk more about reaching for a higher purpose.
At the same time, head off undue deference to the leader (which may be yourself). Is the team becoming overly reliant on the leader to make decisions? For all the reasons stated earlier, that won’t work. The entire team has to be involved in inventing solutions and communicating what is happening throughout the invention process.
7. Open Your Mind
It’s natural to see a problem through your own specialized lenses or life experience. But don’t stop there: Seek out your team (and others), and their different perspectives. And make sure everyone’s contribution is cultivated, heard, and valued.
For instance: Has everyone received the full set of information and been given a chance to form his or her own opinion before hearing others? Does everyone fully understand and appreciate the problems and have an opportunity to ask questions before they are presented with any proposed solution? Have directors been given access to relevant executives outside the C-suite whose knowledge is essential in addressing the crisis—perhaps including (for example) functional heads who normally don’t have board access? Make sure that people are confident about speaking truth to power.
In the same spirit, look outside. What are other organizations doing—particularly new entrants, who may have novel approaches to the business? Are the experiences and expertise represented on the team diverse enough? If not, could outside advisers (lawyers, consultants, auditors, etc.) help the team think more expansively about the problem and its potential solutions?
8. Keep Seeking Solutions
Finally, make sure that everyone is doing their part—not just before and during a crisis but after one has passed. Has the team simply accepted the first plausible solution, or does it continue to search for alternative and potentially superior solutions?
The group should strive to come up with a range of possible options for different scenarios. And then it should come up with new ones. And again, and again. Pressure might have beat you down in one instance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rise up, take action, and try to do better next time—in, of course, a collaborative manner.
Adapted from Smarter Collaboration (Harvard Business Review Press, Nov. 1, 2022).