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The Singapore Law Gazette

Does Your Team Rise or Fall Under Pressure?

Pressure is an inevitable part of working in the legal profession. While the type of pressure might be different between those in private practice, government or in house legal roles, the impact of pressure on performance is real. Research into the relationship between the processes within the team and the performance under pressure has revealed that there is no middle ground. Some teams rise under pressure and perform higher than normal while others fall below their previous level of performance. Use these strategies to ensure your team rises under pressure.

Be prepared. It seems so straightforward to make contingency plans before a team starts to work together, and yet it is rarely done in professional services. Time spent planning can seem like a luxury; however, it is one of the factors that this study of over 100 project teams found makes a difference. By the time the pressure hits it is too late to discuss the options and performance starts to fall as professionals disengage from the team and start to work independently. Discussing the goals of each team member and what they would like to learn on the matter or project is equally rare. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this simple conversation of sharing interests increases the probability of giving people work they enjoy and being able to delegate to them quickly and effectively. These findings come from a study of over 1,000 IT professionals with an average of four years’ work experience. Teams that came together and discussed their interests and made contingency plans outperformed those that didn’t when the pressure increased.

Running smoothly. As the matter, project or working group gets into producing the work needed the frequency and quality of feedback makes a difference. Teams who perform well under pressure make small adjustments based on regular feedback rather than waiting for behaviours to become habits and for problems to become large. Making these adjustments is more difficult if goals were not established in the beginning. Many leaders hope that their team can maintain their previous level of performance as the pressure increases. This study found that there is no middle ground – a team either takes these steps and thrives under the pressure, or it suffers and produces work through the sheer determination of individual members without any support from the team. If you have worked in this type of team you will remember it well and likely made a promise to yourself to not work with them again. It’s tough on the individuals and not productive for the firm, but it is an all too common outcome if the team members and the leader do not understand how it can be prevented.

Manage the emotions. We have left the most challenging of the three until the end. All team members and especially the leaders need emotional intelligence to build the confidence of those who may doubt themselves and the ability to regulate the strong emotions of themselves and others. Hoping that professionals will resolve their anger or frustration themselves is common for leaders of legal professionals. Unfortunately, this research is just the latest in a long line showing that professionals are no more likely than anyone else to resolve conflicts on their own. This study highlighted the need to be preemptive about conflicts that could arise and talk in advance about how they would be dealt with. This creates a pattern that can be used when the pressure is on and emotions are running high. It is the management of these emotions in times of pressure that makes a difference. Legal work has both a high level of ambiguity and high need for attention to detail that creates higher than normal risk of anger and frustration. Taking the right steps to address the emotions of the team ensures no emotional energy is wasted on holding a grudge or fueling frustration. The work is often hard enough without these negative emotions pulling the team down.

Collaboration. Building these three aspects of team performance before the pressure builds increases the quality of collaboration between team members. When professionals can’t link the work they do to their goals, they don’t receive regular feedback and they have frustrations that are not addressed. It is no surprise that they remove themselves from collaboration and focus on their own work. The risks of processes being ignored becomes higher and opportunities for deep discussion of alternatives become rare or superficial. If you are the leader, pay attention to the three areas before encouraging team members to collaborate for better results.

Leaders of teams made up of peers have a special challenge. Care needs to be taken in the preparation stage to be facilitating and leading by example rather than using authority. Even though you are the appointed leader of an industry focus group or a firm wide initiative, that does not mean that the other professionals in the group see you as having authority over them. Positive feedback and opportunity to work in areas of interest can ensure that already busy people make time for your initiative. Be sure to reflect on your own behaviours and emotions in combination with managing the emotions of others when leading a group of your peers.

High performing teams are the engine of today’s law firms and they can be one of the more enjoyable parts of professional work – but they don’t happen by themselves. They need to be built and this research provides a guide for leaders and team members to put their efforts in the areas that will make the most difference. Try these strategies in your next newly formed team before the pressure rises.

  1. Ask each member of the team what work they enjoy and what they would like to learn.
  2. Talk about anticipated problems and how to handle them before they happen.
  3. Provide positive feedback and reinforcement of the behaviours you would like repeated.
  4. Address signs of frustration or irritation while they are small. They are unlikely to resolve themselves, especially as pressure to perform increases.
  5. Watch for signs of team members avoiding collaboration and address it with the steps above rather than instructing them to be more collaborative.

Further Information

Maruping, L., V. Venkatesh, S. Thatcher and P. Patel (2015) Folding Under Pressure or Rising to the Occasion? Perceived time pressure and the moderating role of team temporal leadership Academy of Management Journal 38(5) 1313 – 1333

Sims, D.E. and E. Salas (2007) When teams fail in organisations: what creates teamwork breakdowns? 302 – 318 in Langan-Fax, J., C.Cooper and R. Klimoski (Eds) Research Companion to the Dysfunctional Workplace Edward Elgar, UK

Searl Street Consulting
E-mail: [email protected]

Anna Hinder works with professionals to improve the performance of firms, teams and individuals. Anna looks for practical solutions to tricky people problems that are informed by the best available research. *