Leadership Under the Pressure of the COVID-19 Pandemic

pressure cooker releasing hot steam
Peter Myers Photo
Senior Vice President
DDJ Myers Ltd

4 minutes

When the not-knowing gets stressful, good leaders respond with action based on best practices.

Psychologists have studied people’s responses to the kinds of pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic is producing. These three research-based ideas about how to handle this pressure are mission critical for leaders in the present moment:

  1. Not knowing is more stressful than knowing.
  2. Discipline is your best friend.
  3. Take action in times of uncertainty by remembering that you can swim.

What Happens to You Under Pressure (Stress)

COVID-19 is applying pressure to us from all angles: business model disruption, home life, and even how we get our food. By understanding what happens to animals under pressure, we can see ourselves and others from a new perspective that gives us access to new options for how to respond in these times.

The sympathetic nervous system is one of the body’s ways of preserving itself during stressful times. In brief, when the sympathetic nervous system starts firing, it takes a more foreground position and directs your thoughts and actions by increasing your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing pattern, and even changing how you digest food and water. In this elevated state, your prefrontal cortex, the executive portion of your brain, is overridden in favor of these basic tasks. Think about a time you were driving on the highway and a car unexpectedly cut you off. You probably took immediate action, but you didn’t plan the evasive maneuver. You just did it...and all of a sudden, your sinuses also cleared up. Thank you, sympathetic nervous system.

Not Knowing Is More Stressful Than Knowing

A study published in the journal Nature Communications provides some relatable information. We would rather know bad news than wait for the possibility of bad news. The trillion-dollar question is “When will this be over?” However, no one can answer that question today, and it will probably remain unanswered tomorrow. The pressure of dealing with the situation and the fact that we cannot declare an actionable timeline to return to a homogenous state causes extra stress, sending people’s sympathetic nervous systems into overtime.

This prolonged period of managing the constant barrage of pressure is likely affecting our judgment and ability to see beyond immediate problems. In the example of the car on the freeway, at that moment, you weren’t thinking about your destination, dinner plans or about the radio. Instead, you were dealing with what was in front of you. Something similar might be happening to you and your colleagues right now. As a result, you might be dealing with some issues today without thoughtful consideration about the impact of those actions downstream.

Personal, Team and Organizational Discipline is Your Best Friend

Enacting a standard set of practices, which I’ll call discipline, can help you return to center and navigate uncertainty more effectively. You might even experience more relief. Research published in the Journal of Personality states that “trait self-control is positively related to affective well-being and life satisfaction, and managing goal conflict is a key as to why.”

The absence of personal, team and organizational discipline provides more opportunities for conflicting priorities to divide or fragment your attention or your team’s attention. We see this in leaders and executive teams all the time. Everyone gets thrown off center. However, leaders who maintain individual practices, teams that know how to recalibrate, and organizations that know how to pause and reflect can home in on the most important priorities sooner and with greater ease.

Take Action in Times of Uncertainty by Remembering That You Can Swim

Staff members are uneasy because they don’t know what the future holds. They can’t visualize or touch it, and the fact that no one knows how this is going to shake out only increases their uncertainty—and, therefore, anxiety.

About a year ago, Deedee Myers, Ph.D., our CEO, was in a coaching conversation with an executive who felt overwhelmed. He said, “I feel like I’m drowning with everything, and I don’t know what to do.” Deedee reminded him, “At least you know how to swim.”

This executive had been overwhelmed before and recalled that once he stopped focusing his attention on the things he couldn’t control and started exercising his skills where he could, both literally and figuratively, the path was illuminated. The destination wasn’t clear for a month or so, but “swimming forward” and taking action, as a discipline, helped him feel better and be more productive.

Your staff may need to hear from you, perhaps on a daily basis, the traction your organization is gaining as a result of its competencies. Speaking about progress helps people understand tomorrow’s potential. They want to know that you/we/they can swim and that we have the discipline to keep swimming, a few strokes at a time and with measured breaths, for as long as it takes.

Peter Myers is SVP of CUESolutions provider for board assessment DDJ Myers Ltd., Phoenix. To learn more about how to implement effective board assessment, or if your board wants to improve its critical thinking as part of higher quality governance, reach out to DDJ Myers Ltd. at 800.574.8877.

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