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Lessons from the military

Leadership

Lessons from the military: Communication under pressure

Published 4 October 2023 in Leadership • 5 min read

Communication is a critical leadership skill, even more so when your team is facing unexpected or stressful situations. These tips from the military will help you stay calm and issue clear instructions when put under pressure.  

Military commanders are trained to operate under intense pressure. The battlefield is far from predictable and, as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The outcome of any mission, and very often the lives of others, rests on decisions taken on the spur of the moment and how they are communicated to subordinates. This is where the commander really earns their pay. 

This experience from the military can also be applied in the business world. Team leaders are paid to weigh information, consider options, give direction, and oversee action. Effective communication is essential. Often, such activities are done under pressure, whether this is due to a lack of time, a shortage of information, high stakes resting on the decision, or maybe self-inflicted pressure. How can managers best cope in such situations? How can they best communicate with their staff and how can they best prepare their teams to operate under pressure? 

These tips taken from the armed forces can help guide communication under pressure: 

Be aware of how you respond to pressure 

First, there is a real virtue in being aware of how you respond to pressure. You may raise the volume of your voice, talk faster, or speak at a higher pitch, which can unintentionally frighten others and cause them to exhibit signs of stress. You may begin to lose the ability to focus on the key task at hand and allow your mind to become distracted by issues of less immediate concern which may be easier to solve.  

Equally, you may tend to act faster as well as speak faster, thereby short-circuiting the time needed to think before you act. It is not unusual in the military to see a patrol commander, armed with a map, who, unsure of the patrol’s exact location, speeds up in the hope of confirming where they are only to end up getting even more lost. 

commander reviewing military navy troops in formation. generative ai
A commander reviewing military navy troops in formation. Copyright @ Adobe Stock

An awareness of how you respond to pressure may allow you to adjust your manner and conduct yourself calmly and confidently. Parents who are unsure how they act under pressure should ask their children, who are guaranteed to provide an honest assessment! 

Apply the one-third, two-thirds rule  

An adaptation of this rule reminds us that, in the military at least, a commander only talks for one-third of the time in a meeting to orient the team’s thinking, leaving the remaining two-thirds for team members to express their views and ideas.  

When you feel under pressure you might talk more, or say hardly anything, listen less, and assume you have to take responsibility for coming up with a solution or a good plan alone. Remember that a manager’s job is to manage and make the difficult decisions. The best ideas will usually come from the team.  

Issue a warning order 

In the military, a warning order is issued before starting the planning process to give subordinate leaders and units more time to prepare. The same should be true in a business context. As soon as you receive information that is going to require swift and decisive action, it is advisable to let your team know straightaway that you will be calling a meeting and give clear guidance – including the likely duration of the meeting, and an instruction that this takes priority over everything else. 

When a problem does arise, it can be very reassuring if you have already discussed solutions recently.

Once you have issued your warning order, you can use the time to reflect and assess the challenge ahead of the meeting. It helps to assemble your thoughts under the following headings:  

  • What are your team’s goals?  
  • What are the constraints on your actions, such as timings/resources? 
  • Who needs to be involved at this stage? 
  • What are the next three steps that you need to agree upon? 

By jotting some notes under these headings on a card, you will have the basis on which to brief the assembled team calmly, clearly, and with confidence.  

Once the briefing is delivered, you can then stand back and monitor the discussion, listening out for good ideas but also just checking for signs of stress amongst the group. This might require intervention, but only when helpful or unavoidable.  

Rehearse 

A final tip from military leaders is the importance of rehearsal. You may have heard of the six ‘Ps’: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. If you lead a team that might have to respond to an unexpected challenge or situation, it can be helpful to run your team, perhaps once a month, through an imaginary scenario to put everyone through their paces and identify weaknesses.  

Team tend to be coming out with the best ideas, not the manager
“A manager’s job is to manage and make the difficult decisions. The best ideas will usually come from the team.”

The precise situation will vary depending on the role of the organization, but it could be something like a data breach, a threat to physical security, maybe a dramatic drop in the share price, a ‘PR’ scandal, or a serious injury to a member of staff. It never hurts to talk through how such an event might be handled and give team members the sense that ‘we’ve got this one.’.  When a problem does arise, it can be very reassuring if you have already discussed solutions recently. A critical part of this rehearsal process is the debrief. Make sure you carve out time to identify gaps and address what could be improved. 

In summary, the very fact that pressure often causes us to think and act differently makes it helpful to think about how you might prepare for such a situation, to structure your actions around a simple framework, and to rehearse your response. This will help you to act calmly and means that everyone in the team will be clear on the instructions given and confident in the steps to follow towards the objective. Job done.    

Authors

Francesca Giulia Mereu

Francesca Giulia Mereu

Executive coach

An executive coach with more than 20 years’ experience, Francesca Giulia Mereu is also author of the book Recharge Your Batteries. She regularly works with Frontline Humanitarian Negotiators (CCHN) and at IMD with senior leaders of global organizations. You can follow her LinkedIn Group on managing your energy here.

Stephen T. Kilpatrick

Former British infantry officer

Stephen Kilpatrick is a former British infantry officer who saw operational service on multiple tours to Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. He also completed two tours as an instructor at the UK’s military leadership academy at Sandhurst. He now works in the humanitarian field with a focus on reducing civilian harm resulting from military operations. 

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