5 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Employees having a discussion while having coffee

How leaders can raise their resilience and thrive under pressure

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

5 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Related topics Workforce Corporate culture

By employing specific strategies to manage stress responses, leaders can reframe obstacles as opportunities.

In brief
  • Resilience is, was, and always will be, crucial to high performance. 
  • To raise resilience, leaders and organizations must first build an awareness of their unique stress response.
  • There are specific strategies to successfully develop resilience which leaders must learn to thrive on pressure.

All of us, no matter how successful in our field, will face adversity at some point in our career. Although often unavoidable, these situations can make or break us. Stress accounts for 58% of long-term work-related absence, disengagement, and staff turnover.1 When the pressure is on, the difference between thriving and burning out is resilience.

Resilience is the ability to not only survive but thrive under pressure. The belief that resilience is all the more important in the wake of COVID-19 is popular but isn’t strictly true. The truth is it’s as important as ever: resilience is, was and always will be crucial to high performance. But building resilience and consistently performing under pressure doesn’t happen by chance. It requires thought, effort and deliberate practice.

Register to download the full report: Raise your resilience (PDF, 2.9MB)

Understanding your stress response

The first step to developing resilience is understanding your stress response, its triggers, and what happens once it’s activated:

Seeing pressure differently

When humans are put in a high-pressure situation, they can appraise it one of two ways: thrilling, meaning they come away wanting more, or threatening, meaning their stress response is activated. How people react hinges on their unique history, experiences and personality. One way to build resilience is to harness pressure and use it to your advantage, by focusing on the positives of challenging situations. This will help interpret them as opportunities instead of threats.

Knowing your triggers

Understanding your performance environment will help you to identify your triggers, the things which are hindering your resilience. These can typically range from having little control, conflict in relationships, or having an unclear job-role.2 By tuning into what is specifically triggering your stress response, you can build self-awareness, which will help you to cope better with pressure.

Understanding the impact of stress

Our stress response is hardwired into the most primal part of our brain, as it serves us for our most basic human drive: survival. This means that once activated, it’s hard to thrive under pressure. To reduce your sensitivity to stress, make exercise a regular part of your routine. Although an obvious tip, it is highly efficient in regulating our mood and physical reactions to stress.

Psychological stress response

When the above strategies haven’t worked and you have interpreted pressure as stress, this can offset a pattern of negative thoughts which occur in loop and escalate the ‘threat’ in our minds. These thought-loops include catastrophizing, discounting the positives, and making negative predictions.3 Rather than trying to control or remove the thoughts, simply realising and accepting that we have a choice to change them has been shown to dramatically reduce the effects of stress.4

Strategies for developing resilience

Once you understand your stress response, you’re in a better place to build your resilience. There are three specific strategies you can use to do this:

  • 1. Performance intelligence

    When you’re under pressure, making the right choice is difficult. It requires what we call ‘performance intelligence’: the ability to identify the best course of action given your knowledge, understanding of the situation, past experience and awareness of available resources. Given this, how can you show ‘performance intelligence’ when your next challenge comes along?

    • Assess the situation: As job roles grow in their complexity, our understanding of our working environment can diminish. Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious questions upfront.
    • Draw on your past experiences and strengths: Think about how you reacted to similar situations in the past, what the outcome was and how you can apply that learning to this situation.
    • Learn from others: Watch what other high performers in your field are doing, get regular feedback and seek out those with differing knowledge to help you identify the best course of action to take.
  • 2. Emotional control

    Emotions are an essential part of performance because they dictate your energy flow.5; however, it’s how you manage your emotions that determines success. What’s the secret to emotional control?

    • Develop an ‘inner radar’6: Being aware of how you are feeling in a stressful situation allows you to better perceive those emotions ‘as they truly are’ rather than exaggerating them in your mind. Identify the feeling, name it, and then move on to analysing it.
    • Adopt the mindset of an objective scientist: Suspend judgement on your emotions, explore them, and think before acting. It’s easy to become entangled with your emotions, letting them distort your focus and influence your decisions. By detaching yourself and analysing your emotions objectively, you can reduce their impact.
    • Use emotions wisely: Research suggests that being in a slightly sad mood can help people conduct careful, methodical work, while being in a happy mood can stimulate creative and innovative thinking.7, 8  Emotional control is about harnessing the right emotion at the right time.
    • Keep your ultimate goal in mind: Managing emotions hinges on having clear goals. If you can keep in mind what you want to achieve it’s easier to prevent your emotions from getting out of control.
  • 3. Attentional focus

    What you pay attention to and choose to focus on, is a key determinant of success under pressure.But, how can you successfully narrow your attentional focus when today’s world is ‘always on’?

    • Be mindful: Mindfulness training has been shown to enhance concentration and attentional focus.10 To improve focus, be fully present and engaged in the current task. It’s easy to jump from task to task, but research suggests this ‘multi-tasking’ actually decreases productivity.11
    • Prioritise: Make sure your task list is clearly prioritised along two dimensions ‘importance’ and ‘urgency’. This will help you to avoid getting stuck ‘firefighting’ or spending too much time on the jobs that don’t matter as much.
    • Let go: Categorise aspects of your work in terms of ‘controllability’: what you can control, what you can influence and what you can’t control. Then, spend the most time focusing on what you can control.

Learning to thrive under pressure

There’s a very fine line between stress and pressure, but a big difference between coping and thriving. The difference lies in cultivating resilience. Although organisations and leaders have a big role to play in designing roles and environments which reduce stress, understanding your stress response and learning specific strategies to build resilience can help individuals seize the opportunity to thrive under pressure. 

  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1.  “Annual Survey Report: Absence Management”, CIPD, 2015, http://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/absence-management_2015.pdf
    2. C.J. MacKay, R. Cousins, P.J. Kelly, S. Lee & R.H. McCraig, “‘Management Standards’ and work-related stress in the UK: Policy background and science”, Work & Stress, 2014.
    3. G. Jones & A. Moorhouse, Developing Mental Toughness: Gold medal strategies for transforming your business performance (Spring Hill, 2012).
    4. S. Najmi, Thought Suppression (The Oxford Handbook of Social Cognition, 2013).
    5. S. Murphy, The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (Oxford University Press, 2012).
    6. D. Goleman, Emotional intelligence (Bantam, 2006).
    7.  A.M. Isen, M.M. Johnson, E. Mertz & G.F. Robinson, “The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1985.
    8. P. Salovey & D. Grewal, “The science of emotional intelligence”, Current directions in psychological science, 2005. 
    9. R. Gray & R. Cañal-Bruland, “Attentional focus, perceived target size, and movement kinematics under performance pressure”, Psychonomic bulletin & review, 2015.
    10. A. Chiesa, R. Calati & A. Serretti, “Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings”, Clinical psychology review, 2011.
    11. E. Ophir, C. Nass & A.D. Wagner, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009.


Resilience is an ever-important skill for high performance. The first step to seeing challenges as thrills rather than threats is to deliberately delve into understand how your mind and body react to stress. Then, developing performance intelligence, emotional control and attentional focus can all serve as strategies to build resilience. 

About this article

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

Related topics Workforce Corporate culture