by Stephen Scott
27 June, 2022
It’s been said that pressure makes diamonds. In the working world, I believe this to be true.
The Royal Australian Air Force was a high pressure environment, and I witnessed the creation of a number of diamonds firsthand. I also believe my time there greatly improved my own capacity, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. When people ask me what I miss most about the RAAF, pressure is at the core of it. I was working with a mission-focused team, striving to achieve objectives under significant time and resource constraints, and we were doing so under some of the most complex and demanding operating environments. Achieving those objectives as a team, under those circumstances, were some of the most valuable experiences of my life.
Naturally, I want to gather more experiences like that. However, it’s not as simple as blindly choosing a high pressure job, or arbitrarily adding more pressure to whatever one is doing already. That’s because not all pressure is created equal: it’s critical to distinguish between good pressure and bad pressure. Good pressure creates diamonds, bad pressure destroys anything in its path.
In physics, the equation is: Pressure equals Force divided by Area (P = F / A).
Think of it this way: if you hold the flat edge of a knife against a piece of fruit and press down, you won’t pierce the skin. There’s too much area for the force to cover. But if you use the sharp edge, and apply the same amount of force, the much smaller area creates greater pressure. Therefore, you’ll break the skin.
This illustrates the importance of understanding the different dimensions of pressure, because it goes both ways: if you’re trying to pierce the skin of a piece of fruit, you want to apply enough pressure. On the other hand, if you’re carrying an egg, you don’t want to apply too much pressure or it will explode in your hand. Either way, you need to be conscious and purposeful about how much pressure you want to apply – it’s not arbitrary.
In an organisational context, force includes factors such as time pressure, resource constraints, and complex or demanding operating environments. The “area” is your team.
When a leader faces too high a volume of these forces alone, the pressure can become relentless, massively impacting personal stress levels. Think of an instance when you’ve decided you can handle something yourself, and only realised too late that it was actually the job of three people. It’s exhausting, anxiety-inducing, and ultimately unproductive. Maybe it was too time-consuming, or perhaps too intellectually difficult. But if you can spread forces like these across the correctly sized team – across a greater area – the pressure decreases. Three people doing the job of three people is manageable pressure.
When we face unmanageable pressure, we become stressed and fatigued. When we become stressed and fatigued, we’re likely to fall behind on work, and a common solution is simply to work more, in an attempt to catch up. Working more, especially under great stress, will commonly lead to even more stress and fatigue, compounding the effect. It’s a dangerous loop.
Personal stress is directly proportional to pressure.
Today, these forces can come from more places than ever. Our current global culture is one of ruthless competition, cost-cutting, higher client expectations and demands, and an ever-increasing speed of communication. When one business starts creating products at a certain speed, everyone else has to catch up to survive. If your competitors are responding to enquiries faster than you, you feel you have to catch up to not appear lazy or unresponsive. These new expectations for speed are simply a time constraint: you have less time to do what you were already doing.
No one can outrun this pace. “Work more” or “work harder” are solutions that only succeed up to a certain point, and most people have likely already reached that point.
So what is the sustainable solution? It seems self-evident that it would be to relieve the pressure. But again, this isn’t arbitrary – you mustn’t indiscriminately remove or decrease the forces of work until you don’t feel any pressure. For practical reasons, you can’t simply decide not to do your work, or not to take on new clients, or not to get things done in a timely manner. Anything worth doing requires at least some pressure.
Achievement in itself is dependent upon some hardship, some difficulty. In most arenas, the value of an achievement is directly proportional to the degree of pressure. You only feel proud of yourself after a long, challenging run, because it was challenging. In the same vein, you only grow under pressure. Weight training is an excellent example: when lifting heavy weights, you’re actually making tiny tears in your muscles, damaging them just enough that they know to repair themselves, adjusting for the new stimulus. The damage is exactly what encourages them to come back bigger and stronger.
Therefore, the solution is to consciously manage the amount of force being applied to you (or that you apply to yourself).
This begins with taking personal responsibility for your wellbeing. Eating well, getting enough sleep and keeping a regular exercise routine are fundamental to your capacity to withstand pressure, and nobody else can do these for you. Keeping your mental, emotional and physical health at a high level will improve your capacity to work, and working well in itself is energising and motivating. Thankfully, some feedback loops are positive, and maintaining your wellbeing is one of them.
Likewise, recreation, hobbies, and leading a fruitful social life will all have positive impacts on your wellbeing. As will work-related changes like seeking a mentor or investing in professional development.
Sharing the load at work is a means of expanding the area, and therefore making the pressure more manageable. Empower other members of your team so that they can shoulder some of the responsibility. Not only will this make the pressure more manageable for you, it will improve the quality of life, confidence and careers of your team members. Bettering your teammates and improving your wellbeing will only result in productivity growth for your organisation.
Use these as markers for determining whether you’re facing good or bad pressure.
If you’re being challenged at work, but your general mood is still high, and you’re able to consistently eat well, exercise and get plenty of sleep, then the pressure is good. It’s the kind of pressure that makes diamonds. I know I thrive under pressure, and work especially well to tight deadlines. Even when I’m working on something difficult, I can still take care of my health and enjoy my life outside of work. These are signals to me that the pressure I’m under is good pressure.
On the contrary, if you’re finding it difficult to leave work at work, to find time to exercise, or to find the motivation to do things you normally enjoy, the pressure is probably too high. If you find you’re constantly having to work harder and harder to keep up, it’s also likely that your efficiency and effectiveness are going down.
More often than not, problems with wellbeing at work are the result of mismanaged pressure. As I assert in Ethics Trump Power, there is no doubt in my mind that we are in the midst of a leadership crisis. I firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between this and the rapid rise in stress and fatigue levels. Leaders are simply not creating the right conditions to relieve the pressure.
So, as a leader, ensure you’re sharing the load. Don’t shoulder more than you can handle – it’s not impressive, it’s just the first step on the path to diminished wellbeing, and in turn, diminished productivity. Similarly, don’t allow your employer to overburden you. Your workplace is responsible for a degree of your wellbeing, but people aren’t psychic: you need to communicate how you’re feeling in order for people to accomodate your needs.
Remember that your workplace’s responsibility is to create a foundation, not to magically make you happy. Your workplace must make you feel safe and secure, but beyond that, it’s your responsibility to facilitate your own wellbeing.
Pressure equals force divided by area. Apply the right amount of force to the right area, and you’ll make diamonds.