In the last 12 months, leaders have faced a melting pot of pressure. Pressure to perfect our ‘pivot’ game, which turned into a constant pirouette to survive disruption; pressure to manage teams remotely; and pressure to hit constantly moving targets while reprioritising goals.

Increased resilience and adaptive leadership skills were vital – yet the most important challenge leaders face now is how to constantly perform under more pressure in a world redefined by an unstable ‘new normal’.

University of Queensland (UQ) Business School and industry experts share their top strategies and tips to help leaders feel more confident performing under pressure in an environment where disruption is part of the daily landscape.


#1 Harnessing your emotional intelligence

Understanding, recognising and harnessing emotional intelligence is crucial for leaders to perform under pressure. Conversely, a lack of emotional intelligence (EI) awareness runs the risk of pollinating poor team culture, leaves you feeling exhausted and inhibits your ability to achieve results.

EI is just as important as IQ, according to leadership and performance expert Dr Jemma King. Jemma delivers training to the Australian Olympic Swimming Team and previously helped Special Forces soldiers in the Defence Force engage emotional intelligence to perform under pressure as part of her PhD with UQ Business School.

“In simple terms, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use and regulate your own emotions or the emotions in others to manage and relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict,” says Jemma.

 “The brain is a very metabolically expensive piece of machinery and uses up a lot of resources to think, reason, make decisions, provide perspective and forecast – all the skills a good leader needs.

“But under pressure, your brain has a hard time differentiating between life-threatening stress and imagined stress, and will divert resources to fight or flight survival actions.”

“Your ability to down-regulate your stress state in the moment and more broadly over time will help you keep your brain online in periods of high stress.”

Jemma says there are four areas to navigate when it comes to perfecting your EI:

1) Emotional perception is the ability to perceive emotions in others and yourself, e.g. noticing when a conversation partner is disengaged or in disagreement – detectable through their micro-expressions or vocal intonation.

2) Emotional understanding is about comprehending why a person is expressing emotions, e.g. you know your disengaged colleague has a sick child and may not have the bandwidth to discuss a tricky work issue right now.

3) Emotional facilitation is about using emotional data to make decisions, use reason and incorporate important environmental changes into thought, e.g. understanding what worked yesterday may not be appropriate for today due to shifting conditions.

4) Emotional management is about being able to regulate your emotions and the emotions of others. This means managing your emotions and not responding negatively to an event or interaction that might have occurred beforehand, which could impact your decision-making.

“The bare fact is, not using the principles of EI in your leadership will cost you and your organisation, financially, culturally, with low morale, higher turnover, less trust, and therefore less innovation,” says Jemma.

So, how do leaders engage emotional intelligence to perform under pressure?

According to Jemma, it all comes down to practise, practise and more practise. She shares her top tips to regulate emotions and build EI to perform under pressure:

  1. Attend to how words are being said, rather than just what is said. Likewise, ask people how they feel about a situation, rather than just what they think. You’ll get a different perspective.
  2. Acknowledge when you don’t do so well, and recap in your mind how you could have done better. Ask your colleagues how you could have done better.
  3. Make note of emotional predictions and go back and see how accurate you were after the fact.
  4. Get sleep. When sleep-deprived, you are much more emotionally reactive and prone to anxiety, while less likely to use emotional data and reason correctly. Our research found 45mins of sleep debt meant 10 per cent poorer mental control the next day.
  5. Get your heart rate up. Getting your heart rate up before a meeting with a short walk will increase oxygenation of your prefrontal cortex, improve memory and creativity.

For more micro-learnings on emotional intelligence see