Under Pressure: Coping with the Demand to be Commercial (Part 1 of 2)

So, I had just made the move from private practice into an in-house role at an investment bank in early 2000. A few weeks into the new role, I was assigned a piece of work advising on an important deal being run by a senior business guy. It was a very long-dated trade that seemed to me to carry lots of legal risk towards the final months of the trade. When I raised my concerns with the business guy, he replied as follows:

“Come on. This is an important trade for the bank. No-one has raised these issues before. You need to be more commercial.”

He then went on to say something that has stuck in my mind even 17 years later.  “In any event,” he said “why do you care? IBGYBG.”

“IBGYBG”. Does anyone know what this means? I certainly didn’t at the time?

I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone…

Pretty shocking, eh?  Well, thankfully, that guy did not remain in his role long. And I came across very few individuals during my 12 years as an investment banking lawyer, who came anywhere close to his extraordinary attitude.

Now, clearly, that colleague was attempting to influence my thinking and behaviour by exerting direct pressure on me.  Thankfully, not all negotiations with colleagues involve such a blatant and brazen use of pressure. However, pressure does exist in different forms and can seem like it is constant.  For in-house lawyers, the pressure to be commercial could manifest itself in direct pressure from CEOs or business colleagues to deliver legal services quicker or more cheaply. There is direct pressure from your businesses to help them navigate changes in their commercial and regulatory environment. And there is indirect pressure in the form of a constant barrage of reports in the media about developments in the use of technology to deliver legal services. Just look at the number of conferences this year that have focussed on the future of law.

And you and your teams sit in the centre of all this pressure. How do you cope?

In this blog, I’d like to explore with you how we respond to pressure, especially when it seems overwhelming. In particular, how becoming aware of our own triggers and faulty thinking can help us to respond better to pressure and, therefore, to make better choices.

Pressure is really about how we respond

And the key concept here is response. Because pressure is something that may well surround us, but it has no impact or effect on us unless we allow it.

Let me explain. How often have we heard the phrase, that guy really wound me up?  Perhaps we get frustrated when a colleague always turns up late for meetings or checks emails during meetings.

Well, that colleague’s behaviour does not cause our particular emotion. The colleague is not forcing us to be frustrated or angry. The causal link is actually the way that we choose to respond to that other person’s behaviour.

In other words, there is a distinct and deliberate step that determines how we respond. The problem is that, in many instances, that step is often determined by factors that sit outside of our conscious awareness.

My work as an executive coach is about helping people to identify core beliefs and drivers that exist at the subconscious level. Once identified, if they are unhelpful we develop mechanisms to learn to cope with them, to put them to one side. This can assist people in making long-term adaptive changes in behaviour.

Subconscious drivers

So, how do we become aware of something that exists at a subconscious level?

Well, it is often by noticing and reflecting on the response that we have to a particular event, which can provide us with the clue that something is going on at the subconscious level.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. It may be hypothetical or very real for you. Your COO comes into your office. She issues you with a costs challenge. In-line with other divisions in your organisation, you need to shave 5% from your costs by the end of the financial year. Now, your emotional response may range from inward resignation – this is the last thing you need at this time of year – to varying degrees of anxiety – how the hell are you going to get this done without firing people? It is perfectly natural to feel anxious when faced with a new challenge, whether it be a costs challenge from your COO or a new project. We have a choice. A choice to respond with an appropriate or inappropriate level of worry.

An appropriate level of worry reflects the cognitive rationalisation that you wish you didn’t already have a large existing workload, but the fact is that you have to find some way to get on with it. An inappropriate level of worry is an indicator of something deeper going on.

A-B-C model

An American psychologist, Albert Ellis, developed a helpful model to illustrate and explain our responses to external events. His A-B-C model lies at the heart of RET and CBT. As lawyers, I thought that this model might appeal, as it places emphasis on rationality and how correcting thinking errors can lead to coping with stressful situations and better decision-making.

Under Ellis’s model, an external event or stimulus occurs: (“A”). We respond to this event in a particular biological way. The consequence of (“C”) can be an emotional response, such as, by becoming worried, anxious or even angry; the response can be in the form of our behaviour: we can become aggressive towards someone or avoid them altogether; or, finally, we can have a physiological response in the form of heart palpitations or sweaty/clammy hands.

So, what triggers a particular response? Well Ellis argued that each of us hold beliefs (or “B”), which act like a filter or lens to distort the way that we think about the particular event. The beliefs can be about ourselves, other people or the world in general.

Here are some examples of beliefs that Ellis and subsequent psychologists (like Aaron Beck) have identified.

  • All or nothing: Thinking is black and white rather than shades of grey. “I have to get this 100% perfect. I always make this mistake. I’ll never get the hang of it.”
  • Labelling: This is when we attach negative labels to ourselves: “I’m useless at maths. I always get this wrong. I’ll never get the hang of it.” “I am so unlucky, this sort of thing always happens to me.”
  • Magnification: This involves blowing things out of all proportion. “I failed my promotion interview. My career is in ruins.” “We made a mistake. This is terrible.”
  • Predicting: This is how we predict negative future outcomes. “I am going to really embarrass myself in this meeting.” Or “If I say I don’t understand something in that meeting, everyone will laugh at me and think I am an idiot.”
  • Discounting: Here we minimize the positive factors in favour of the negative. “She is only saying I did a good job because she feels sorry for me.” “I was really lucky to get that promotion.”
  • Blame: Instead of taking responsibility, we blame others. “It is all my line manager’s fault. He shouldn’t have given me so much work.” “Where are my keys. Who moved them?”
  • Personalisation: We blame ourselves unfairly for something for which we are not totally responsible. “The team did not reach the target. It’s all my fault.” “My kids will develop anger management issues because I always lose my temper with them.”
  • I should / must / can’t: This is a big one. It refers to when we set unrealistic standards for ourselves. It can be really damaging. Examples include: “I should be able to cope with all this work.” “I must not make any mistakes.” “I can’t handle this.”

These beliefs create thinking errors, which impact our ability to be able to assess the event in a rational way. Do any of them resonate with you? Or perhaps you can recognise one or more in your colleagues’ behaviour?

In Part 2 of this blog (http://stewartbrownconsulting.co.uk/?p=700&preview=true)I’ll describe some tips that Albert Ellis and other psychologists suggest can help break the unhelpful influence of faulty thinking on our thoughts and behaviour, to allow us to cope better with pressure.


Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash