Imagine you are driving a car. Suddenly the engine explodes because the pressure became too high. Before the incident you already felt strange vibrations but thought: “As long as nothing happens…”.

This may sound weird. Who accepts an exploding machine? No one, right? Therefore we equip machines with gauges and valves to ensure that the pressure can never build up too much. But when it comes to people things are completely different. Even today, we hardly measure the pressure in teams, let alone proactively ensure that the pressure remains within limits. But what would happen if we could actually regulate the pressure in teams?

If you could actively regulate the pressure in a team you can ensure that team members show top performance under all circumstances. As a result, the cost-of-inefficiency of the team is greatly reduced because team members address each other’s ineffective behavior. Moreover, return-on-investment grows because the team becomes more effective, team members take more initiative and the team as a whole becomes more vigorous.

We become more effective when pressure grows. However, there is a tipping point at which our effective behavior turns into survival behavior. If pressure is too high, we are simply trying to keep our heads above water. In such a situation you are no longer concerned with the team interests, but literally with self-preservation. This tipping point is different for everyone. Everyone experiences pressure differently and everyone has his or her own sensitivities that are affected when pressure gets too high. That makes it so very difficult to actively regulate pressure in teams.

Before we can start regulating pressure in the team, we must first look at the symptoms of overpressure. These symptoms are visible in the behavior of individual team members. One of these symptoms is that a team member mentally withdraws from a meeting. It seems as if he is no longer participating in the meeting. Another team member may become very defensive or attacking others during the meeting. This causes meetings to take (much) longer than necessary.

Team members constantly influence each other, not only during meetings. A manager who becomes increasingly controlling under pressure can push employees who have a need for personal autonomy in their survival behavior. If a team does not take adequate action its strength will be greatly reduced and the team find itself in a downward spiral.

The consequences of this downward spiral can be enormous. Ideas are no longer shared with each other or are not picked up by others. In addition, problems are less likely to be expressed (possibly from the assumption “If I put this issue on the table I can solve it myself”). And if someone puts an idea on the table this invariably leads to discussions where everyone advocates his own views. As a result, promising initiatives are not picked up and team members will less likely share their ideas. Consequently, costs are increasing and team members are less and less concerned with the team interests. Understandable when team members are merely trying to keep their heads above water.

But how you can reverse such a downward spiral? How do you keep your team at the highest possible performance level?

It all starts with the basics: in a high-performing team members are open to each other based on mutual trust. This combination of trust and openness is necessary to take the next step, i.e. to understand and recognize both your personal and your teammate’s personal pressure points. When are you less effective and why? Why is this a pressure point for you? If you know this you can take the next step as a team, which is recognizing when someone reaches this pressure point. The entire team is aware of and paying attention to the possible symptoms of excess pressure within the team. If anyone recognizes the survival behavior in a teammate he or she can address this – obviously at a suitable moment.

Sometimes people I work with ask questions such as: “I cannot just address someone’s behavior?” Or “What will my teammates think of my survival behavior?” Experiences I have gained in coaching teams over the last years have shown that sharing personal pressure points and survival behavior with other team members leads to a strong growth in mutual trust and openness among team members. This has led almost without exception to enhanced proactive behavior, greater decision power and demonstrable cost savings. An interesting detail is that people start seeing each other more as human beings and they experience mutual cooperation as more pleasant and enjoyable.

Recognizing and actively managing (survival) behavior of team members turns a team into a self regulating power house. Individual team members act as pressure gauges and valves. The entire team continuously adjusts its behavior where and when needed. This way, the team maintains fully effective under high pressure while preserving team spirit.