The saying goes that it’s impossible to get a second chance to make a first impression. First impressions are defining moments – moments that forever color someone’s experience with you and of you. If that moment goes badly, you’ll spend the rest of your foreseeable relationship trying to play catch up.

Just like a first impression, there are crucial moments that happen throughout our day, weeks and careers that become defining moments. The routine, good work we do day in and day out can easily be tainted by one bad day, one bad interaction or one bad blowup. While this fact should keep us vigilant to controlling our tempers and tongues, VitalSmarts’ latest research shows that many leaders struggle to hold it together when the pressure is on.

The study of 1,300 people asked respondents to describe their leader’s style under stress and the impact of that behavior. The data revealed that a large majority of managers and leaders buckle under pressure. One out of three leaders is seen by his or her direct reports as someone who fails to engage in dialogue when the pressure is on. Specifically:

  • Fifty-three percent of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
  • Forty-five percent are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.
  • Forty-five percent ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.
  • Forty-three percent are more angry and heated than cool and collected.
  • Thirty-seven percent avoid or sidestep rather than being direct and unambiguous.
  • Thirty percent are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest.

While it was true that his team agreed he was great 95 percent of time, it was also true that his non-routine behavior was what left a lasting impression. His team felt it was those few moments – the five percent of all moments, when stakes were high and the heat was on – that revealed the truth about who he really was.

When leaders buckle under pressure, it doesn’t just hurt their influence; it also hurts their teams. When asked how their leader’s style impacts their results, survey respondents said that when their leader clams up or blows up, team members are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets and quality standards and act in ways that drive customers away. It also impacts morale and psyche: Team members are more likely to consider leaving their job, more likely to shut down and stop participating, less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities, more likely to be frustrated and angry, and more likely to complain.

These data should motivate every leader to take an honest review of his or her own style under stress. When under pressure, do your communication skills rob your team of hard-earned results and psychological safety? What about your personal influence? If your analysis leads you to the conclusion that it’s time to make changes, consider learning a few skills to achieve dialogue, no matter how high the stakes. Here are just a few:

Speak Up Early.

People who are best at communication don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and, often, worsen the situation – and their reaction to the situation. One of the great benefits to speaking up early is that you have fewer hairy, scary, big conversations. When you catch problems early, it makes them easier later on. Remember, what you permit, you also promote.

Challenge Your Story.

When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling negative stories that absolve us of responsibility and put the blame on others or our environment. We villainize others to exaggerate perceived negative attributes. We victimize ourselves to make us out to be innocent sufferers, who have no role in the problem. And we feel helpless to our situation and rationalize our over- or under-reactions, because “there was nothing else I could have done!” Instead, control your emotions by challenging your story.

Start with Facts.

When the stakes are high, our brains often serve us poorly. To maximize cognitive efficiency, we store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do, and use that information to realign your own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.

Create Safety.

When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others become defensive or retreat. As it turns out, people aren’t defensive because of the content of your message but because of the intent they perceive behind it. So, when you’re stressed, share your positive intent first. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to work with you.

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