How To Keep Your Team From Freezing Under Pressure

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First question: Have you ever played poker? I mean real poker, with real money at stake. (“Real” money, of course, being a relative term—primarily relative to your current net worth.)

Second question: Have you ever been losing at poker, with real money at stake?

You play differently when you’re losing than when you’re winning, don’t you? That’s because there’s more pressure when you’re losing.

And when the pressure’s on—when the stakes are the highest—we tend to play more conservatively. We take fewer chances. In other words, we play not to lose, rather than play to win.

It’s human nature. When the pressure is the highest, we focus on what we might lose, rather than what we might gain.

When the pressure’s on, we focus on what we might lose rather than what we might gain. @billstainton #pressure #leadership #CrunchTime #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

The same dynamics that affect us at the poker table affect your team in the workplace. Professor Heidi Gardner, of the Organization Behavior Unit at Harvard University, found that in high-pressure situations, teams get a sort of tunnel vision, focusing more and more on the risks of failure than rewards of success. Because of this, they fall back on safe, conservative approaches instead of coming up with original solutions.

This is a problem because the safest course isn’t necessarily the best course.

In a high-pressure situation, the safest course isn’t necessarily the best course. @billstainton # pressure #leadership #CrunchTime #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

Now, let’s be clear here. There may be times when the safe course is the best course. But how can you know that if you can’t compare it with other options?

When your team freezes—when they default to safety and stop coming up with these options—then you’re all basically saying, “The status quo is our best—and in fact, only—bet.” And at this point, you’ve psychologically negated any possibility of a breakthrough solution, a solution that could move the situation forward rather than keep it frozen where it is.

So how do you correct this? How do you get your team—with real consequences on the line—to keep generating original solutions?

1.    Let them know that options are valued

Create a culture of “two or more options for every challenge.” Be clear with your team that only one option is not an option. Make multiple options a core team value, and be consistent with it. When your team realizes that there is an expectation of “two or more options,” they will start to generate those options.

2.    Listen to everyone

Gardner also found that in high-pressure situations, teams tend to defer to the highest-ranking members. But the truth is that good ideas can come from anyone. So rather than just asking the senior members what they think, ask everyone. Sometimes the most junior member of the team will see something—a piece of information, a connection, a resource—that everyone else has missed.

3.    Play “What if?”

I’ve written about this before. One easy way to generate creative ideas is to play “What if?” For example, ask your team questions like:

  • What if we had unlimited time to solve this problem?
  • What if we had to solve this problem with only $100?
  • What if our competition were facing this problem and solved it? How would they have done it?

By asking these and other “What if” questions, you force both you and your team to think about the problem differently, which opens up the possibility of creative solutions that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

It’s no fun losing at poker. I know. I’ve been there. But—in that and other high-pressure situations— there’s a world of difference between freezing and feeling helpless…and having options that could lead to a breakthrough solution.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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