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Effectiveness under pressure

The pressure is certainly on! Whether in the private sector where companies are competing for business and customers through recession and an uncertain financial environment; or the public sector where ‘the bottom line’ is represented by quality, standards and availability of services when the money and resources to deliver those services has dramatically reduced. The human cost, not only in terms of reduced opportunities, instability and uncertainty, but the effect on health, families, discretionary good will, personal capacity and resilience cannot be under estimated.

So how do we cope? How come some leaders relish the challenge of complex, high profile, high risk situations, or simply more things to do than there is time or resource to do them? And how come some do not cope?
In my experience, those who seem best able to remain calm and effective in extreme circumstances are those who have spent time on preparation. In policing, those specialists who, for example train to investigate major and serious crime or manage a major incident such as a major disaster simply shift up a gear and adopt a calm and collected approach to the task. They know what needs to be done, how to do it, and what resources, tools and techniques to deploy. When all is chaos and crisis around them, the clarity of thought and confidence their training and experience brings allows them to perform effectively and inspire their team to do the same.

They also know what they don’t know. Seeking support or advice from people better qualified or more experienced, to solve a particular problem has, over the years, become an absolute sign of a mature and effective leader in policing. Call it humility, or just common sense, but sharing the burden of a high pressure situation, testing and checking your decision making, thoughts and ideas is accepted as the norm. It is no longer a ‘credibility issue’ to ask for help.

Pressure also manifests itself, not only in the ‘critical incident’, but also when sheer volume of work, or pace of change becomes overwhelming. Right now, in the police service, these are the things stretching some people to breaking point. The same is true of other organisations. Political change, dramatic and sustained cuts in budgets (with no end in sight), reorganizing, restructuring, re-engineering to ‘do more with less’ is putting the squeeze on people who already felt they were working to full capacity doing ‘the day job’.

So how do people remain, or become effective in these circumstances? Inclusivity is key here. People who feel disempowered may quickly disengage and valuable experience or expertise is lost. People who do not understand change may feel threatened by it, and become a barrier or a saboteur. That is not to say it is sensible, or even desirable to attempt to consult everyone about everything as inertia and paralysis will ensue. But finding as many channels as possible to communicate and inform will engender an atmosphere of ‘no surprises’. Honesty and transparency are key, and timely conversations to reduce the ‘rumour mill’; give straight and direct answers to questions to remove uncertainty and suspicion.

Finally, the tensions between individuals and teams that emerge in pressure situations should be embraced as opportunities. When people are passionate about the business, organization or objective, emotion can take over. When the passion and emotion is harnessed and focused on a common aim, it can deliver fantastic results.

Effectiveness under pressure 2On his 70th birthday, Charlie Chaplin made a speech in which he said “We no longer need to fear arguments, confrontations or any kind of problems with ourselves or others. Even stars collide, and out of their crashing new worlds are born. Today I know that is life”.

Tracy P Hayler, Head of Strategic Alliances Avon and Somerset Constabulary