From High Stakes to High Yield

A coaching client recently shared with me that when stakes are high and he needs to be at his best, he ironically shows up at his worst. This is a pattern I often observe in the people I work with, and I know it well from my own experience as a leader in a company. We hear the same type of message over and over again. Never rest on your laurels. Things move fast around here. The bar gets raised every time. If you slow down, someone will overtake you. You better deliver on your quarterly goals, or you’re going to miss the boat. And there only ever seems to be just one boat.  So you do anything you can to achieve. You focus on your quarterly results. Not a lot of space for deeper reflection, long term thinking, or cultivating relationships at work.

Qualities of Leadership

The weeks before leaving Google –  once word got out that I had resigned –  revealed something somewhat surprising to me. People started reaching out to tell me how they appreciated certain qualities of my leadership. I kept hearing words like courage, insight, care, wisdom, honesty, positivity, humor, and connection. Nobody mentioned any of my OKRs, achievements, promotions, metrics, presentations, or any other outcomes I had worked so hard for.  The fact that I felt I had focused a lot of my energy on delivering results was definitely not reflected in what people said they appreciated about me the most. Was spending all that time worrying about achieving adequate results wasted? Of course I wouldn’t have lasted there if the quality of my work hadn’t been sufficient. Yet it was such an eye opener to see what really seemed to matter. And a visceral confirmation of the famous quote that people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

The Cost of Constant Striving

In hindsight, I know I had more than enough achievements and personal connections in the bank that would have afforded me a few not so perfect results. But I honestly didn’t see it, or at least it didn’t give me much peace of mind. The self-imposed achiever mentality keeps high performers going. Very conducive to a system that’s always looking for more. But at what cost? Most of us know that under pressure, we are not always our biggest selves. When stakes are high, fear often rises in proportion. We may not be aware of it, yet I see it a lot around me. And I remember it clearly from my past Google and Oracle days. If we feel (often subconsciously) that we are not good enough, that we will be found out any time soon, or we don’t belong, we need a valve for the negative energy to escape. Which can quickly lead to behaviors like defending, judging, threatening, or – on the other end of the spectrum – shrinking and becoming invisible. We’ve probably all been guilty of it at some time in the past. It’s not helping us create welcoming workplaces or spaces of belonging. It’s not bringing out the positive energy that enables us to collaborate, innovate, and thrive. It doesn’t feel great, and it doesn’t help us deliver sustainable results.

Cultivating a Different Way of Being

So how can we fix it? Or better said, how can we cultivate different ways of being? How can we create conditions that can help us and our coworkers be more at ease yet fully engaged when the pressure mounts?  Over the years, I have played around with different practices and I have found that the following three have been very effective for me and many of my clients:

1. Ground Yourself

I’ve written about working with the body a lot. It’s an important message that is worth repeating. And I know it’s easier said than done. Yet the more we practice, the more capacity we build.  By finding our center in an upright yet relaxed position, we set up a strong foundation for support any time the stakes are high. Try this now. Check in with yourself and notice how you feel. Then put both feet on the floor, sit with a straight back, hands on your thighs. Find the position that allows you to feel comfortable and upright at the same time. Now close your eyes or lower your gaze. Feel your feet on the floor and place your attention there. Deepen your breathing. On each exhale, let go of any tension in your body as best as you can. After a while, open your eyes and notice how your state feels different.

2. Notice Parts at Play

Our bodies and minds are complex systems made up of many parts that constantly interact with each other. When stakes are high and the pressure is on, many of us feel like we need to protect parts of ourselves, often by withdrawing, attacking, or defending. This may not always be at the forefront of our awareness. Bring a high stakes situation to mind. Did you feel like you wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible? Or was your initial instinct to tell people how you’re right and they’re wrong? Notice how this plays out in your mind. And see if you can identify different parts of you and their interactions. There will most likely be a part that wants to protect you (it may show up as combative, defensive, or evasive), and another that needs to be protected (it may feel vulnerable, nervous, scared). Can you sense any of them? If you get curious and inquire into what messages they may have for you, you can learn a lot about yourself and your patterns under pressure. It’s important to meet these parts with kindness and gratitude. As you engage with them mindfully and non-judgmentally and give them the attention they crave and deserve, an underlying stillness or vibrancy may reveal itself. This is true leadership presence. From here, no matter how high the stakes, you will find that you can engage with more calmness, clarity, and openness.

3. See the Goodness in Others

When stakes are high, we tend to quickly judge others if they do something that we perceive as a potential threat. How often have you thought “that idiot” when someone was vocal about a different perspective than your own? How often have you wished the other person just remained silent and went along with your suggestions? Under pressure, we often forget to see the goodness in people. Next time you feel like you’re about to judge someone, try to take a step back and start getting really curious about this person. What do you appreciate about them? What qualities in them do you find admirable? And what do you think their intent may be for the conversation or project you’re both engaged in? What can they bring that you’re missing? How could the fact that they see things differently enrich what you have to offer? What is possible from here?

Walking a Different Path

Next time you are faced with a high stakes situation, and you are noticing yourself getting triggered, try to experiment with grounding yourself in order to interrupt your usual reactive patterns. Your body can help you slow down. It will let you become more aware of the different parts that are at play within yourself. Practice noticing your different parts. Engaging with them can help you find your true creative resourcefulness. And from there, it will be much easier to see the positive intent of others, and everything they are contributing that has the potential to make your work so much richer. It may be unfamiliar territory at first, and it may feel vulnerable. You may not quite know how to engage. Play around with it. Experimentation will reveal a path. And beginning to walk that path will enable the conditions for deeper connection. What used to be attack or defense under pressure may transform itself into true collaboration. And from there, high stakes challenges become high yield opportunities.

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