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How Work Leaders Can Harness Pressure in the Digital Workplace

September 12, 2022 Leadership
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

The past few years have been filled with high-pressure moments, from a global pandemic to a tumultuous, uncertain economy, to a war in Europe, to a complete rethink of the employee-employer relationship.


While workers are contemplating their best path forward for the ideal work-life balance in a tight labor market, employers are finding themselves at an impasse: trying to contain costs in a market downturn, while seeking out increasingly expensive talent to refresh the company's much-needed skill set. 

And let's not forget the return-to-the-office standoff that is still unfolding across the country. This tug-of-war is adding considerable pressure on organizations to find inventive ways to incentivize remote employees to come back to the physical workplace. 

The good news amid all this? There’s research showing that some level of pressure can actually help leaders perform better. 

Leveraging Healthy Pressure

Early in my career, I was having trouble leading a training initiative for a company. The materials needed to be rewritten, and my approach wasn’t working. I was feeling the pressure as we “graduated” trainees who were no better equipped to deal with change than they were when they started. I was told that this situation needed to be fixed — and to do whatever necessary to make it better.

I overcame the pressure, but it involved way too much caffeine and too many late nights and weekends. I was spending as much time overcoming my anxiety and stress as I was working to solve the problem. Experienced leaders know that this model doesn’t work. At the very least, it's not sustainable.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, ManpowerGroup's chief innovation officer and a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, shared in Harvard Business Review how leaders can manage and leverage pressure for their benefit. In his piece, he lists four key action items for leaders to improve their ability to cope with stress:

  1. Know your pressure threshold. Ask a few trusted colleagues about how well you perform under pressure and evaluate yourself through different pressure gradients. 
  2. Identify your pressure triggers. The stress you feel may come from a variety of situations: a heavy workload, tight deadlines or uncertainty for example. Knowing what sets off your pressure sensors helps you implement solutions.
  3. Use a handful of strategies to cope in the moment. From physiological elements like getting good sleep or exercise, to figuring out what will calm you before or during stressful events, you can better deal with whatever is thrown your way.
  4. Don’t avoid pressure entirely. If you never experience pressure, you’ll never improve your response to it. That doesn’t mean leaders should seek out stressful situations, but not backing away from pressure-filled challenges can help you deal with stress down the road.

The whole article is worth reading, but how do you apply this in the context of today's always-on digital workplace?

Related Article: The 4-Day Workweek Won't Cure Burnout (at Least Not Yet)

Screens Don’t Make You Invincible

In an in-person environment, it is often easier to read the body language of people experiencing pressure. In a digital environment, however, it can be harder to tell. 

The Mayo Clinic has advice for dealing with stress and pressure at work, including a reminder that everyone gets nervous except those who are dangerously overconfident. A person who never feels nervous at least some of the time may be unaware of their stress level or covering up their challenges. Recognizing the pressure is a healthy, initial way of addressing it.

Leaders dealing with dispersed or remote employees should be intentional about discovering how their people are doing. Some people are great at showing confidence in front of the camera; others may seem nervous no matter what. Sometimes, there's just no way of telling how someone is doing without probing. I say probing because you can’t just ask them once. You have to keep lines of communication open and create an environment where employees are comfortable sharing their challenges. 

Leaders should also consider how to reduce the pressure in the workplace. Unfamiliarity with digital collaboration and communication tools can be a source of unneeded stress for some employees, for instance. It’s easy to assume that everyone is comfortable doing things like sharing their screen or starting a video call, but making the technologies that we all use in a digital context second nature takes time for everyone. 

Related Article: Curb Employee Stress to Spur On the Great Retention

Lead by Example

It’s one thing to help employees and colleagues harness pressure and perform well; it’s another to follow your own guidance and lead by example. If people see you taking on unhealthy pressure (or avoiding it altogether), they’ll see it as an alternative way of coping with their challenges. 

In a digital world, where things can seem effortless, this may mean debriefing after a meeting and talking about what went as planned and what added stress, even for a few minutes. Or, it may be worthwhile to have more frequent informal chat, particularly when anticipating a stressful situation ahead. 

Without body language and other in-person cues, leaders have to work harder at taking the pulse of their teams. That’s to be expected in a digital context. But the outcome when your people perform great under pressure will be well worth the investment on your part.


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