You have pulled together a great team for your project. You have the skills needed, people know how their skills complement each other, and you have great connector skills to pull the team together.

The team has gelled. You share aspirations, the project has clear goals, and you are on your way to achieving them.

You have even had clear discussions on decision-making. Everyone on the team knows how decisions are made, and you have made enough decisions together that each person has a feel for the others habits. There is a lot of mutual respect.

And then …

It all goes wrong. There is a crisis. A stakeholder changes; the goal posts get moved; a critical person leaves the team; or there is a pile up of small issues that grow into a hairball. “How does a project get to be a year late? One day at a time.”

People who normally work well together have generally figured out a few things.

  • They understand and respect each others preferred communication channels
  • They understand who decides what (sometimes this is a formalized decision matrix, but usually it is a set of implicit assumptions)
  • They understand how each other make decisions ad know what to expect

In high stakes situations all this changes. And this is a problem because most of us do not have a lot of experience interacting with our teammates in high-stakes situations.

The key themes

Communications: Under stress communications channels change. People who normally want to communicate through e-mail may want a face-to-face meeting. Other people, who are generally happy to communicate by phone need to have things written down. These changes in expectations catch people off guard. It feels like the rules have been changed, just as people are hoping for predictability.

The solution – over communicate, and do so on multiple channels. Do not shut down or get into a bunker mentality.

Who decides: The status quo for who gets to decide what can shift. Leaders reach down into the organization and start to micro-manage. People on the line lose trust in their leaders and question their decisions, or refuse to implement them. Some people feel alienated and stop contributing to decision making.

The solution – this one is tough. Sometimes immediate action is needed and there is not time to forge a new consensus. “Just do it and we will discuss it later” can be a necessary position, but it only works if people actually do discuss the decisions later and people are given a chance to have a stay; and only if immediate action is not necessary. Let’s face it, some of us default to action when under pressure, any action, just do something. This is often the wrong reaction. So hit pause, decide what really has to be decided now, and build a new consensus on how decisions are being made. You have to do this because in high stakes situations how people make decisions changes.

How people decide: most of us have a default approach to making decisions. Some of us are very collaborative, and take time to gather and synthesize opinions. Others rely on data and analysis. I know a few people who look to precedent, what was done before and what was the outcome. And all of us rely to some extent on our gut feeling. All of these are valid. And we learn how each other make decisions and expect this to be a stable part of how we work together. But under pressure most of us change our decision making style. The hardcore analyst starts to ask people their opinions (and some people see this as having lost focus and becoming wish-washy, when in fact such collaboration may be just what is needed). A relationship builder may default to action and begin issuing commands. A person who is normally decisive and who makes decisions easily may all of a sudden need more data and more analysis before being willing to commit.

The solution – expect people to change under stress. And be ready to accept these changes. Learn to become aware of how your own decision-making has changed and coach your teammates on this.

The person who has gone deepest into these questions is David Kantor at The Kantor Institute. Getting coaching on this is not cheap but could be a good investment for a leadership team. His book Reading the Room is a good place to start if you want to study how teams communicate and how this changes under stress.

It is high summer and just before a holiday weekend. So we hope you will not be faced with a high-stakes situation this week. But if you are,

  • Over communicate, expand the range of channels you use
  • Check in on who is making decisions – it has probably changed
  • Pause and see how you are making decisions, and how this has changed, communicate that to the rest of your team