Developing the core skills that underpin mental toughness can help you flourish under pressure.
The economic climate has rocked the legal sector. In recent months, law firms from small local practices to urban megafirms have seen tightened budgets, reduced deal activity, billing and compensation rates frozen to 2008 levels, equity partners injecting more finance into the firms, layoffs from partner level to support staff, and delays in implementing new hires. This is pressure indeed for lawyers at all stages of their careers.
The ability to cope with what can seem like overwhelming change has never been more important. How should you handle it? The first thing to realize is that you’re not alone. Pressure is an inherent and incessant part of the modern business world.
Pressure, though, does extraordinary things to people. It can crush performance in sometimes unexplainable ways, or it can induce extraordinarily high performance. The key to being able to flourish under pressure is the development of mental toughness.
Mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, pressures in order to consistently perform at high levels. Here are pointers on how to develop and strengthen the core skills that underpin this capacity.
Being mentally tough does not mean that you never feel stressed under pressure. On the contrary, everyone experiences stress at various times. The key is accepting that it is an inevitable part of performing at high levels so you can then develop skills for handling the pressure. Research with the world’s top athletes shows that they can continue to produce their best performances at times of significant physical and emotional pressure because they have learned how to cope with the stress and maintain composure in such circumstances. Legal professionals can develop the same types of skills to respond to pressures ranging from incessant client demands, to the race for partnership, to the tough task of getting new business in a down economy.
Here are techniques that can be used to handle stressors effectively.
Self-belief is an essential element in the makeup of the world’s best performers in business, sports and more. It underpins the ability to set and achieve stretch goals, take risks, control potentially debilitating fear, and learn from mistakes—all of which are key components of successful lawyering.
Robust self-belief enables you to maintain confidence in your ability to achieve performance goals under pressure. Here are some strategies to try.
Top performers are a testament to the ability to deal effectively with many potential distractions while maintaining focus on the things that matter. This ability involves accepting that there are factors in the performance environment you cannot influence so that, as discussed earlier, you can focus on the things you can control. But it also involves the following.
Ultimately, skills and abilities alone will not enable high performance that is sustainable under protracted challenges. The mentally tough are able to bounce back because they continue to stay motivated despite sustained pressures. Extrinsic motivation, such as pay and reward, is unquestionably a source of motivation for many. But research shows that internal motivation and working for an inherent satisfaction leads to more enjoyment and consequently less pressure.
This ensures that desire and determination to succeed is founded on positive and constructive motives that keep you optimally motivated and enable you to recover from inevitable performance setbacks and failures that may threaten your longer-term goals. Life in the dynamic and unpredictable legal sector means that sometimes things will not go according to plan but, in order to succeed, individuals must be motivated and able to sustain performance during times of stress.
So, the bottom line on those who remain motivated and thus thrive under sustained pressure is this: They do things because they want to succeed at them. Or put differently, they are energized and exhilarated by what they do, rather than being desperate to succeed because they fear the consequences of failure. If you focus on the things you can control, what really matters in the job at hand, and all the positive aspects of your role rather than the negatives and constant pressures, you too can develop a level of mental toughness that will enable you to sustain high performance even in the face of today’s challenges.
Graham Jones, PhD, is a performance psychologist and Director of Lane4, a management consultancy specializing in organizational performance, leadership development and executive coaching with offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia. He is coauthor of Developing Mental Toughness: Gold Medal Strategies for Enhancing Your Business Performance (Spring Hill, 2008).