How to Stress Less and Lead Better
Stressful circumstances are an inevitable part of professional life, yet how those experiences are managed has a significant impact on a leader’s ability to produce results and preserve relationships within the organizations they lead. Let's keep it simple and remember the basics of stressing less to lead better.
To truly understand what it means to be stressed, we must call upon the wisdom of Brené Brown - the High Priestess of the human emotional experience - to help us effectively articulate what it means. In her book Atlas of the Heart, she defines the human experience of stress as:
When we evaluate environmental demand beyond our ability to cope successfully.
In essence, any time we perceive a gap between our capacity to produce results and the expectations tied to our responsibilities, we find ourselves tangled in the web of stress. As the pressure to perform climbs, so does our experience of stress, bringing along the unwelcome companions of tension, irritability, and tunnel-vision thinking.
Under the weight of stress, we often resort to ineffective triage strategies, investing considerable time and effort to create positive outcomes. Sadly, this is frequently at the expense of the professional and personal relationships we rely on for long-term success. We console ourselves by saying we'll return to our full scope of leadership responsibilities "at the end of this project" or "when these tasks are done." We justify these short-term measures, convincing ourselves that relief is just around the corner. In the guise of temporary fixes, we neglect our relationships, lose sight of long-term goals, and, unintentionally, turn ourselves into workhorses rather than the leaders we aspire to be.
But what happens when one stressful situation concludes, only to be swiftly followed by another, and another? Whether it's supply chain disruptions, talent shortages, economic downturns, global pandemics, remote work policies, or dealing with different generations like Millennials (and don't even get me started on Gen Z!), the answer is clear: the stress rarely abates. A high-stress culture and relentless pressure to perform have become staples in nearly every modern organization, regardless of how many kegs are in the breakroom.
Make no mistake, the primary casualties of prolonged exposure to stress are not only the effectiveness of the results we achieve, but the quality of the professional partnerships we rely on to create success.
Hence, one of the most essential skills for any leader to master is the successful mitigation of stress in their personal and professional lives. While it's easier said than done, stress management is a skill that can be mastered to prioritize long-term gains over short-term outcomes. But how can today's leaders stress less to lead better?
Develop Stress Resilience
Three primary methods stand out for developing resilience in stressful circumstances: sleep, exercise, and meditation. Although these may sound like clichés, most of us struggle to establish healthy practices that shield us from the impacts of high-pressure situations. Ensuring you get sufficient sleep, engaging in physical activity at least three times a week, and incorporating a daily mindfulness practice are powerful ways to bolster stress resilience. These habits have a proven positive impact on brain chemistry, promoting balanced brains that respond to and experience stress less acutely than tired, unfocused counterparts. So, be kind to yourself, get enough rest, get moving, and practice mindfulness. Doing so will help you develop stress resilience and improve your ability to control your response when an employee expects a promotion after only three months on the job.
Schedule Your Moment of Zen
Stress is a personal experience, but physical symptoms often serve as early indicators that the body is attempting to manage the effects of high-pressure situations. Muscle and jaw tension, an elevated heart rate, and perspiration are common signs of low-grade stress, while stomach pain, warmth, and trembling are associated with higher stress levels. If you find your shoulders around your ears and your teeth grinding down to nubs, it's crucial to take a break and help your body release the accumulating stress. Embracing the practice of scheduling periodic breaks throughout your day can significantly alleviate stress. Whether it's taking a leisurely walk, practicing deep breathing, or connecting with someone you care about, these moments offer your body the chance to recalibrate. Not only will this set a positive example of stress management for your team, but it can also save you money on chiropractors and dentists.
No Sudden Moves
Stress is essentially a signal that your nervous system has switched to fight-or-flight mode. Your amygdala has taken control, and you're thinking with the part of your brain designed to help you fend off a saber-tooth tiger, rather than managing your frustration with that poorly worded email from Bob in accounting. When you're operating with this primitive part of your brain, you're more likely to see situations in black-and-white, fall into tunnel vision, and lose the perspective needed to create effective solutions. You lose access to your executive functioning and are more prone to making errors or opting for short-term fixes at the expense of long-term gains. So, remember the timeless advice of Vanilla Ice: "Stop, collaborate, and listen." Refrain from acting when tensions run high, and take the time to regain the perspective needed before making any strategic decisions. Resist the urge to hit "send," avoid adding one last thing, and refrain from making significant decisions when your nervous system is primed for survival mode.
Address Root Causes
While individual efforts to manage stress are commendable, they may feel futile if you return to an organization that continually fosters chaotic environments and perpetuates stress-laden leadership behaviors. Successful leaders view heavy workloads and intense working conditions as opportunities to transcend existing organizational structures and innovate to create a balanced working life. In such cases, professional coaches can be valuable allies for leaders grappling with ongoing high-pressure work environments. We can help identify counterproductive stress behaviors and devise strategies to proactively mitigate intense professional conditions. Furthermore, we can identify ways to fortify organizational resilience and reduce the frequency and intensity of high-pressure situations at work. Sometimes, all it takes is a partner to remind you that although you've been enduring and coping with stress for a long time, your organization deserves more than a leader who is merely surviving instead of thriving.