We were recently privileged to spend some time with the coaches from the Swansea City Academy, working alongside members of the British Army, exploring leadership, communication and decision making.
The whole day was fantastic, and threw up lots of questions, ideas and insights, but one thing that has really stuck with me was about how people listen under pressure, and the challenges this can present to leaders.
Some context will help explain this. The team had completed their final mission and were extracting back to their vehicles to end the day’s work, prosecuting the enemy and dealing with the rain, heat and fatigue. They were not expecting anything else to happen and were feeling buoyant given how well the day had gone for them, rightly so, as they had worked hard and achieved a lot. Out of the blue, they were attacked, a member of the enemy forces firing on them, leading to a member of the team becoming a simulated casualty who needed to be extracted.
“Stress responses heighten our senses for certain cues and prime us for action, not for listening”
The situation changed and emotions escalated quickly, with adrenaline and stress flooding the team, who needed to take decisive action. The leader of the team was able to take a moment to work out what they wanted to do, and began to address the team, giving instructions about what they wanted to happen.
The trouble is no one was really listening.
This is not to say that the leader or the team were doing anything wrong. The leader was working hard to get their messages out and the team looking for instruction and guidance.
But the team were in a highly emotional state, feeling unsafe and stressed, many of them seeking a means of getting some control back in the situation. In this state, it’s not that they weren’t listening, it’s that they weren’t able to listen, or at least, listen effectively. This reminded me of what sports psychologist Sarah Cecil said in a recent episode of the Focal Point Podcast (link and episode notes on the Performance Edge page), when she highlighted the value of psychological safety, and how listening suffers when people feel unsafe.
Stress responses heighten our senses for certain cues and prime us for action, not for listening, so leaders are confronted with a difficult conundrum. Just as the team did on Salisbury Plain, we expect our leaders to take charge and communicate with us at critical moments, when we are stressed and in need of direction, which also happen to be the times when we are at our least prepared to listen effectively.
So what did we observe with the group that might help deal with this conundrum?
- Manage the emotional load before communicating in detail: Finding a way to reduce the emotional state of your followers (and yourself) will help ease the stress responses, which in turn allows your team to be more cognitive and respond to what you’re saying. Different people need to be engaged with in the way most appropriate for them, reducing their stress levels, making them feel in control and priming them to listen more effectively.
- Find a way to cut through the chaos: Under stress the brain makes quick assessments, looking for differences or things that stand out as concerning. In the chaos on Salisbury Plain everyone was running, shooting, shouting, and pointing, including the leader, who therefore looked the same as everyone and was lost in the noise. When the leader calmed down, stood (in cover!) still and calmed his tone, he stood out, drew attention and was able to communicate more effectively.
- Keep it simple: In the moment, under intense stress, complex messages or instructions rarely get through. Concepts and narratives become harder to track and can further rob your followers of capacity. Being simple, clear and concise increase the chance that a message gets through and chunking bigger plans or ideas into more digestible stages also helps.
Adaptability is a key attribute for leadership, and for effective communication. Recognising your own emotional state and being able to gauge that of others is pivotal to communicating in the right way at the right time. While it may feel uncomfortable to engage in a more direct, simple, style, it could be necessary to get the message through.
Stressful situations won’t always be as clear as they were on Salisbury Plain, and people can be triggered by a huge range of environmental and interpersonal factors. Understanding the stressors in your team and in yourself are critical to sustaining high performance when under pressure, helping you communicate with them in the most effective way.