A new study by researchers at VitalSmarts shows that a manager's ability or inability to communicate in high stakes, stressful situations directly impacts team performance.

Specifically, managers who clam up or blow up under pressure have teams with low morale; that are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets, and quality standards; and that act in ways that drive customers away.

And unfortunately, too many teams are victims of a manager better classified as a "hothead" than "smooth operator." According to a survey of 1,334 people, at least 1 out of every 3 managers can't handle high-stakes, high-pressure situations. Specifically, when under stress:

  • 53% of managers are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • 45% are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • 45% ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • 43% are more angry and heated than cool and collected.
  • 37% avoid or sidestep rather than be direct and unambiguous.
  • 30% are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest.

This abrasiveness coming from management not only affects key success metrics, but also has a major domino effect on a manager's direct reports. The research shows teams led by hot-headed managers tend to also react poorly to stress. Specifically, they are:

  • 62% more likely to consider leaving their job than teams that are managed by someone who can stay in dialogue when stressed.
  • 56% more likely to shut down and stop participating.
  • 49% less likely to go above and beyond.
  • 47% more likely to be frustrated and angry.
  • 40% more likely to complain.

David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts says this study indicates just how impactful a leader's communication style really is.

"No one works in isolation. When under pressure, our actions have enormous power to tip the scales for good or bad," says Maxfield. "When we react poorly, we don't just hurt others' feelings or egos, we hurt their results—we impact their ability to perform."

Joseph Grenny, Maxfield's colleague and coauthor of the bestseller Crucial Conversations, also emphasizes how this data plays out across society.

"Leaders everywhere—not just in business, but also political, community, and societal leaders—must understand the scope of their influence," says Grenny. "Those watching our leaders will not only mirror their bad communication habits, but act in ways that sabotage results." 

The study also highlights an opportunity for positive change. Managers who can stay in dialogue, despite external pressure, see better results from their teams. When a manager practices good communication in high-stakes situations—is calm, collected, candid, curious, direct and willing to listen—their teams are not only happier and more engaged, but they tend to: 

  • Meet quality standards 56% more of the time than teams whose manager does not achieve dialogue.
  • Act in ways that benefit customers 56% more of the time.
  • Meet deadlines 47% more of the time.
  • Improve morale 47% more of the time.
  • Improve workplace safety 34% more of the time.
  • Achieve budget 25% more of the time.

And contrary to popular belief, a manager's ability or inability to deal with high-stakes, stressful situations has nothing to do with age or gender. Neither factor correlated with the skills and behaviors of dialogue under pressure. And researchers say this is a key finding.

"Our ability to stay in dialogue when stakes are high is not dependent on genetic or inherent factors," says Maxfield. "These are skills anyone can learn and adopt to not only be more personally effective and influential, but to better lead a team to success."

Grenny and Maxfield share a few tips managers can use to improve their style under stress and see better results from the people they lead.  

  • Speak up early. When we anticipate stress or pressure, most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at dialogue don't think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don't speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and often worsen the situation—and their reaction to the situation—as they begin to work around the problem.
  • Challenge your story. When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain, victim and helpless stories. Villain stories exaggerate others' negative attributes. Victim stories make us out to be innocent sufferers who have no role in the problem. And helpless stories rationalize our over- or under-reactions because "there was nothing else I could have done!" Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.
  • Create safety. When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others get defensive to, or retreat from, your tirade. As it turns out, people don't get defensive because of the content of your message, but because of the intent they perceive behind it. So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to work with you.
  • Start with facts. When the stakes are high, our brains often serve us poorly. To maximize cognitive efficiency, we tend to store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do – and use that information to realign your own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.