How to show poise under pressure


Tessie is a 35-year-old Project Manager in a small Design Agency. Resources are tight and deadlines even tighter. At times, especially on a Friday, as everyone rushes to meet client demands and set targets for the following week, there is a pressure cooker atmosphere. It’s part of the creative buzz, but the downside is tempers become frayed.

Tessie believed she was being mobbed. This is serious accusation and not to be taken lightly. But in every situation I always check the exact circumstances. As I listened, it was clear that two of the issues were just standard vying for limited resources, with at worst an impolite exchange. The third case was where a man made a sexist comment about her bum, in a language he didn’t think she understood. This was clearly sexist and out-of-order, but does not constitute mobbing.

As she recounted the situation which led to her taking a sick day and leaving the office early, I had to ask her what if anything had she said or done at the time to make it obvious that the behaviour was unacceptable to her? How had she made her boundaries clear? The answer was she had done nothing.  A quick retort in that language, probably would have been enough – or even a translation in English would have embarrassed the guy out of making any further comments about her derrière in front of her colleagues.

She was not able to show poise under pressure and didn’t think on her feet.

Tessie reported that after our discussion, a short, direct and constructive communication type conversation with the culprit, was sufficient to do the trick. If it had continued and become a pattern of behaviour from a group of people, that would have been mobbing. In that case she would have reported that to her boss.


Véronique, a marketing manager was taken to task by a new Director for the way she had handled a certain issue. When addressed, she was so affronted and upset, she was unable to speak and ran out of the room and cried in the bathroom. She did nothing at the time.  She apologised afterwards and although she thought she had resolved the situation, some weeks later her fixed term contract was not renewed.

She was not able to show poise under pressure and didn’t think on her feet.

Leadership skills

Having poise under pressure is a vital leadership skill and a key part to creating what is known as executive presence. This is a combination of behaviours and characteristics which convey confidence.

When there is danger, or we are facing  challenging situations, our minds and bodies go into the ‘fight, freeze or flight’ mode.

But despite what you think, being able to think on your feet and showing poise under pressure are learned skills and can be dealt with by the right kind of preparation. People don’t want to work with colleagues and especially bosses who can’t cope with difficult situations. It makes you seem unreliable and inconsistent.

Those two incidents were stress situations to the people involved.

6 tips to show poise under pressure

  1. Know yourself and what you know. Self-belief, knowing you have the skills to deal with any situation inspires confidence. If your values are clear, people may not always respect them, but it is easier for you to create boundaries. It also helps to de-personalize a situation to move into business neutral (see below).
  2. Share your message: when your message is strong and is shared in an assertive way, your limits are clear.
  3. Have authoritative body language: standing tall, with good eye contact sends another strong message. Breathe deeply to calm any nerves and to deal with the panic signals that let your body know you feel under threat. This will help with the onset of any tears.  Concave body language puts you psychologically in a weaker position.
  4. Deal with the challenge: go directly into business neutral and don’t personalise it (even if it is your bum). More breathing if necessary
  5. Close graciously: to ensure good working relations, to pave the way for the future.
  6. Communicate constructively: it may not be appropriate to deal with a situation immediately, but at a suitable time after, make an appointment for a meeting and raise the issue using blame free language. “When x happened, I experienced this as ..”

How do you show poise under pressure and weather the storms?

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