For now, let’s dwell on the constant and thorny problem of how to make sure staff continue to have the necessary capacity to do their job well but without necessarily piling on the pressure. Capacity and pressure are like peas in a pod. Nobody is going to agree to having capacity if they are feeling unduly pressured. It stands to reason therefore that by reducing pressure, we increase capacity. No system is able to take on any extra strain if it is at bursting point.
In Dane Jensen’s book The Power of Pressure, he argues that it is perfectly possible to thrive whilst under pressure, and that pressure isn’t the problem; it is in fact the solution, not least because pressure is a natural by-product of doing things you’ve not tried before and is an essential component of high performance.
The way to cope with pressure is through The Pressure Equation that helps to solve the stubborn problem of how to deal with it in high-stakes environments. The Pressure Equation consists of three variables – Importance, Uncertainty and Volume – and that when multiplied together they create pressure. The trick it seems, is to make the equation work for you by reducing any of the variables, for example, by decreasing workload or doubt.
Jensen defines pressure as being “the need to act in the face of important, uncertain circumstances.” (Jensen, 2021) This is helpful because it suggests that if it's not important to you, do not allow it to create unnecessary pressure. He makes clear the difference between things like stress, fear, or grief, because with pressure it is the need to do something and to act. This means that if we are able to do something, we do at least retain an element of control, even though it might not feel like it at the time.
The problem with stressful situations is that they are not always within our control, and we are unable to act, such as a sudden bereavement, coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis, being shot at on the front line, or trying to rescue people from a burning building (all highly stressful jobs or experiences). The outcome is often beyond both our limitations and our control. Jensen also draws comparisons with sport: watching a penalty shootout at home on TV is stressful because we can't do anything about it. For the players involved, it's pressure because at least they are in control.
With pressure then, we can exert control. Knowing the difference between the two is good to know. It’s also important to know that in some cases at work, when we feel stressed, it’s most likely pressure. As difficult as it might seem, we can at least try and do something about it.
Here’s how: Taking each of the pressure equation variables in turn, if something isn’t important to you and it doesn’t matter, it won’t create pressure. We tend to only feel it when we feel passionately about something. A typical thought is, ‘If I mess this really important thing up, people will think I’m a fool.’ Either: we avoid it and don’t step up, or: we go for it because we trust those around us, and that the levels of psychological safety are sufficient to warrant us exposing any potential vulnerabilities. (Remember Vangen and Huxham's (2009) trust-loop in chapter 7?) Even better, we learn to persuade ourselves that whatever it is that is causing a build-up of pressure isn’t actually important after all. We take back control by re-codifying it. We reframe the problem.
The second variable – uncertainty - is inextricably linked to importance and is something we are not well placed to cope with. We are hardwired almost to flee certain types of uncertain situations, such as restructuring and potential job loss. It’s in moments when we can’t, or won’t flee, that we feel pressure.
In an interesting research-driven pilot study involving twelve headteachers in England (Brosnan and Stanton, 2021), each was given an Inner Balance Biofeedback sensor and phone app to wear that measured their real-time ability to cope under pressure. By learning how to notice it and then regulate it, they were able objectively to self-regulate their Autonomic Nervous System via live physiological data. This meant they could spot when they were connected, self-regulated and in control (Ventral vagal), in fight-or flight-mode (sympathetic arousal), or worst still in a state of freeze or collapse (Dorsal vagal). All respondents felt empowered by learning how to reduce uncertainty by taking back control through increased cardiac coherence. Above all, they felt balanced.
Finally, we have volume, which as the name suggests can make pressure feel overwhelming in an organisation where it just keeps on coming thick and fast. Jensen – himself a successful CEO – asked an organisation he was working with to write down on a post-it note all the things they were currently tracking and measuring. (In the case of a school, it would be all the DfE targets, clumsy Ofsted proxies, benchmarks, thresholds etc., plus all the key performance indicators, success criteria and targets that you self-impose as you go about RAG rating your annual plan.) He called mercy when it got to 189 different things that were being measured, and this he feared was merely the tip of the iceberg.
This is what we mean by volume – or its alter-ego, lack of time - and I suspect you have shed loads of it in your school. As I keep saying, beware the tyranny of metrics. Leaders need to know how to reduce the impact when importance, uncertainty and volume collide. They need to turn down the dial. If we can manage this, we manage capacity and can then ensure our staff can navigate a way through the pressure equation.
A lot of it comes down to mindset and attitude. Most of the pressure that we pile on ourselves are things that are actually not that important (such as Ofsted, safeguarding notwithstanding). We’ve allowed it to be because we’ve failed to frame it correctly. But if we can learn to realise that in the scheme of things, it’s not actually that important, we can then begin to take back some control and make the equation work for us.
When dealing with pressure, Kim Scott (2017), in her book Radical Candor, reminds us of our responsibilities as a leader and that we cannot fulfil them without good relationships, which in turn are at the heart of culture and everything else that follows. We know this already from Chapter 6, but in order to do this, and to act as the safety valve when it comes to managing other people’s pressure, it needs to start with you.
Scott refers to this as ‘staying centred’, something we must all learn to do. You cannot care for the wellbeing of others if you do not care for your own. “The essence of leadership,” she writes “is not getting overwhelmed by circumstances.” To do this we must all at some point figure out our own recipe for staying true to our core beliefs so that when we show up for others, we also show up for ourselves. Self-help often starts with self-indulgence, especially when feeling overwhelmed.
The Authentic Leader: A Four-Part Model to Lead your School to Success, is published by Bloomsbury on 13th October. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon or the Bloomsbury bookshop (with a 10% discount).
Brosnan, M. and Stanton, C. (2021), Pilot of Headteacher Heart Health Programme for Members of the EPHA Executive. Pursuit Wellbeing.
Jensen, D. (2021), The Power of Pressure. Why Pressure isn’t the Problem, it’s the Solution. Collins.
Scott, K. (2017), Radical Candor. How To Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean. Pan.
Vangen, S. and Huxham, C. (2009), ‘Introducing the theory of collaborative advantage’, in Osborne, S. (Ed). (2010) The New Public Governance? Emerging Perspectives in the Theory and Practice of Public Governance. Routledge.