Pressure

The best definition I found for the word pressure is this:

Pressure (v): A compelling, constraining influence or force.

The key word here is constraint. To be under pressure means that there are constraints that can't be moved and must be dealt with. This might be time, resources, the raw difficultly of the situation, or all of the above. The existence of these constraints means that there are fewer choices available and even less time to solve whatever the problem is.

But when people use the word pressure, as in "I'm under pressure," they mean there is some perceived threat of failing to overcome the constraint. A pressure situation, such as a political debate or taking a last-second game-winning shot, means that something important is at stake that can easily be lost (or at least is believed to be so). There are often other people involved who will suffer if they fail to succeed, amplifying the sense of pressure on them.

What's most important to realize about pressure is the different ways people respond to it. Each individual has different sensitivities and will feel more or less pressure in different situations. They will also have different ways of dealing or coping with it. For some, the best release of pressure or stress is physical activity, for others it's humor. But, sadly, many people haven't yet figured out how to deal with these things.

During difficult situations, one additional task for leaders is to make sure there is support for different kinds of stress relief. If the team witnesses the leaders poking fun at their own stress responses ("When I get home, I'm grabbing a six-pack and taking the longest bath in history"), it allows others to follow suit. If the lead programmer invites other programmers to the gym (or the paintball arena) after work to blow off steam, others will have the chance to see if that helps them with their stress. Even those who don't participate will have the opportunity to consider what stress they're under and where the best place might be to release it. On the contrary, if leaders are repressive and deny their stress, pretending they don't feel it or don't need a form of release (typical stupid macho behavior), they make life harder for everyone else. Never let your team think that the need to release stress is a sign of weakness.

Watch out for the disguised threat, "Oh. Well, if you feel so stressed out that you need relief, maybe you shouldn't be on this team." And avoid the dismissive ridicule, "Oh, yoga? I guess that's OK if you need that much help." These come from managers who don't know what's good for them. Stress relief is often cheap or free, and it has no downside. Even if it doesn't help relieve stress, supporting people in pursuing it (or making it available to them for free) provides morale bonus points. I've seen smart managers bring massage therapists in during tough times, and go door-to-door, offering each person a 10-minute massage. It worked wonders: even those who didn't participate talked about it for days.

11.7.1.1 Natural and artificial pressure

Pressure is a force that management has some control over. Management's actions change the nature of pressure in several different ways, and managing a team through stressful times requires an understanding of them. There are four types of pressure: natural, artificial, positive, and negative (see Figure 11-1).

Figure 11-1. The four kinds of pressure.

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I think of natural pressure as the feeling people have when a personally significant commitment they have made is at risk ("Oh, wait. I told Sam I'd have the demo working by 2 p.m."). If they believe in the commitment, and are emotionally invested in the quality of their work, they will, all on their own, increase their focus and energy level in response to pressure. I call it natural pressure because it comes directly from the work and the person's relationship to the work. In this situation, all leaders need to do is guide and protect that energy, and support the individuals on the team in their pursuit to meet their goals. This kind of pressure is generally positive because personal motivation and team needs are aligned. However, it can become negative if people feel guilt or shame about failing to meet their commitments, especially if others are causing the problems that led to those failures.

Artificial pressure is any tactic leaders perform to try and amplify the team's sense of pressure. This can be both positive and negative. The positive form is reward driven, where people are rewarded for working harder and raising their performance through tough times (e.g., raises, promotions, bonuses). Or, the additional work could be voluntary, where the leader asks (but doesn't demand) that the team work harder (perhaps with incentives like expensing dinner for those who stay late, or letting more people work from home). Sometimes, artificial pressure can take the form of a spirited team meeting, where the positive spirit behind the project is rekindled (perhaps generating some natural pressure for some of the team), and a new wave of energy is cultivated.

Negative forms of artificial pressure include scolding, guilt-tripping, or threatening as ways to get people to work harder. Sometimes, this involves leaders blaming the team for certain failures, and asking them to work harder to fix the problems that they may have caused. This is the stereotypical drill sergeant mentality: the team needs to be constantly disciplined and yelled at to perform at its best (or so the theory goes).

Most of the time, it's some combination of natural, artificial, positive, and negative forces that managers use to keep a team performing well. As much as I prefer using positive forces, sometimes it's only the careful use of negative forces that can bring a team around and get it focused again. On the whole, it's a careful balance and there's no formula for it. It's only through experience with managing teams, and observing human nature, that you get better at applying these kinds of forces. You'll find that most experienced managers have developed theories about the application of pressure. But all too often the theories aren't derived from diverse enough experiences to justify the confidence people have in them.

Formulations of pressure aside, it is clear that a team has limitations on how much pressure it can handle. Figure 11-2 shows a diagram adapted from Volume 1 of Gerald Weinberg's Quality Software Management (Dorset House, 1996). It shows a performance curve for teams working under pressure. For a time, most people and teams show improved performance as pressure increases. But over time, this relationship diminishes and then flattens out completely. When a team is at its maximum performance level (a.k.a. redlining or maxed), no amount of additional pressure will get the team to work harder, better, or faster. If the application of pressure continues, eventually the team (or individual) will snap and things will get much worse.

Figure 11-2. There is a limit to the value of pressure in increasing performance.

So, however you decide to use pressure to manage a team, be aware of the thresholds that you're working in. If the team is unresponsive, it might be that you need to apply a different kind of pressure, but it can also mean that the team is redlining, and no amount of management activity will get it to perform any better. It takes experience to recognize the difference between the two. In short, people on a redlining team will have their heads down in the hallway and won't be smiling much. They'll seem nervous and tired at the same time. They will wilt when asked to take on another task or make a minor change to something already completed. It's much more expensive to recover from burnout than slow the project down, so it's best to do the latter. Release some pressure by giving people an afternoon off, playing an impromptu game of touch football in the parking lot, or adjusting the workload or schedule to something sane.

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