How to ensure your team performs under pressure

Recent events around the world have seen teams from all sectors handling crises of varying magnitude. In a critical emergency, teams that pull together effectively can make the difference when every second counts.

The effort you put in as a leader, before any crisis happens, can make the difference as to whether your team degenerate in to groupthink and becoming insular; or pull together (with other teams) and go above and beyond.

Believe me, I know. I’ve run a contact centre and a communications team during several different major emergencies.

Before we go any further, it’s useful to flag up the two different types of stress that you and your team are likely to encounter.

  • Quantitative stress comes as a result of increasing demands, time pressures and overload e.g. when employees are given too much to do in an unrealistic amount of time.
  • Qualitative stress relates to highly complex tasks, non-routine jobs, or unrealistic performance standards which staff struggle to perform regardless of how much time they have.

In a crisis, there is an overlap between the two. But there are things you can do to mitigate the effects. And more than anything, it’s the level of team effectiveness and team commitment you have that can truly make the difference.

Build team effectiveness by…

Having a structure that is fit for purpose: This is about the roles but mainly about the chain of command. One of the common issues I find when I work with struggling teams is that there are too many layers of management. This is bad enough in calm times but the effects ramp up during a crisis. You also need to think about how your team structure works with other teams in the event of an emergency.

Working with your team on developing crisis response plans: The best managers I know have developed crisis response plans with their teams. In other words, they haven’t pulled it together on their own. Your team may spot things you’ve missed and come up with some good ideas for handling different situations. By getting your team involved, they are more likely to own the roll out of any plan in the event a crisis happens.

Regularly running through emergency plans: This will be bread and butter for those who work in the emergency services, less so for teams of civilians from other organisations. For example, if you head up a communications team in a local authority can you be assured that every single member of your team knows what to do when, in the event of an emergency? Plans should be updated and communicated at least monthly.

Training people to perform in crisis situations: Simulations can be a good way to test for weak areas ahead of any crisis. If you aren’t already part of any simulations, then why not organise one yourself? It can be useful to map out the key skills needed to handle the crises you’ve outlined in your emergency plan. You can then carry out a training needs analysis to see where there are any gaps. It can also be useful to get team members to pair up to learn from each other – e.g. if one person is great at social media but another needs to learn then buddy them up.

Having clear rules: Having a simple list of rules can be helpful. In particular, what needs to be approved by whom and when. Not knowing this can cause duplication of effort or even worse a vacuum.

Build team commitment by

Helping team members get to know each other: Teams where the individual members really know each other are the teams that go the extra mile in a crisis. This requires you to put in the effort before any emergency happens. Regular team events, both formal and informal, can make the difference.

Having clear, agreed values: I’ve written about this before, so many times. Don’t underestimate the power of a co-created values framework. Key is to keep it simple. What are the things that matter to you and your team? Find out. Communicate them. Make them real.

Rewarding the right kind of behaviour: If you need people to step up and go the extra mile in an emergency, then you need to be recogonising and rewarding that behaviour ahead of time. This helps it become normalised. You don’t need to wait for or rely on your organisation’s formal awards. You can do your own thing. For example, my old team had monthly ‘special recognition’ for people who had gone above and beyond, and exemplified our values. People would get small gifts of vouchers, or an extra half-day’s leave.

Leading by example: And then there’s you. Are you absolutely exemplifying the kind of behaviour you want to see in your team? If you haven’t faced an emergency situation, what do you think your gaps in knowledge and skills are? Is there a peer, who has the knowledge and skills, that you can learn from? More than anything, in an emergency you need to be visible and accessible – whether that’s for your team or for people affected. You can’t expect your team to step up and go the extra mile if you’re not.

What have been your experiences of successfully leading a team in an emergency? Why not share your advice in the comments section so others can benefit from your experience?


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