Stress Less and Lead Better: A Leader's Guide to Managing Stress
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.
If we are defining what it means to be stressed, we must call upon 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
Any time we sense a gap between our capacity to produce results and the expectations associated with our responsibilities, we experience stress. As the pressure to perform rises, so does our experience of stress along with all of the tension, irritability and tunnel-vision thinking that often comes along with it.
Under stress, we succumb to ineffective triage strategies, invest significant time and effort to create positive outcomes and often do so at the expense of the professional and personal relationships we count on for long-term success. We tell ourselves we will return to our full scope of leadership responsibilities "at the end of this project" and "when these tasks are done." We justify our methods of dealing with stressful experiences by calling them temporary, and we convince ourselves relief is just around the corner. Under the guise of short-term measures, we neglect our relationships, lose sight of long-term objectives and turn ourselves into workhorses instead of the leaders we are meant to be.
Yet what happens when the successful conclusion of one stressful situation is followed by another...and another? Supply chain disruptions, talent shortages, looming recession, global pandemics, remote work policies, dealing with Millennials (and don't get me started on Gen Z!)… How many leaders actually reach the point where the stress abates and they feel as though their heads are above water instead of drinking from a fire hose? The answer is, zero. High-stress culture and intense pressure to perform are part of almost every modern organization, no matter 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.
Therefore, one of the most essential skills for any leader to master is the successful mitigation of stress in their personal and professional lives. Although it is easier said than done, stress management is a skill that can be successfully mastered to prioritize long-term gains over short-term outcomes. But how can today's leaders stress less to lead better?
Develop Stress Resilience
There are three primary methods to develop resilience in stressful circumstances - drumroll, please - sleep, exercise and meditation. Although I am sure we all just allowed ourselves a collective eye-roll for stating the obvious, it's worth repeating because most of us cannot seem to develop a healthy practice of inoculating ourselves against the impacts of stressful circumstances. Sleeping a decent amount, exercising at least three times a week and a daily mindfulness practice supports stress resilience because these habits are proven to positively impact brain chemistry. Balanced brains are happy brains that do not respond to or experience stress as acutely as brains that are tired, under-stimulated and unfocused. So do yourself a favor and get to bed, get moving and practice presence to develop stress resilience and increase the odds you will successfully control your response when one of your employees expects a promotion after three months on the job.
Schedule Your Moment of Zen
Everyone has a different experience of stress, but physical symptoms are often the first sign that the body is working to manage the impacts of high-pressure situations. Muscle and jaw tension, elevated heart rate and perspiration can be symptoms of low-grade stress, while stomach pain, warm sensations and shaking are associated with elevated stress levels. If your shoulders are up around your ears and your are grinding your teeth down to nubs, it is important to take a break and help your body discharge the buildup accumulating of stress. Since all coaches love time blocking, we recommend scheduling periodic punctuations in your day to alleviate stress. Go for a walk, engage in a series of deep breaths or connect with someone you care about to give your body a chance to recalibrate. You will set a positive example of stress management for your team and saving loads of cash on chiropractors and dentists.
No Sudden Moves
Stress is just another way of saying your nervous system is in fight-or-flight. Your amygdala has been hijacked and you are thinking with the part of your brain designed to help you ward off a saber-tooth tiger, not manage your annoyance with the poorly worded email from Bob in accounting. When you are thinking with this primitive part of your brain, you are more likely to see things as black-and-white, succumb to tunnel vision and lose the perspective you need to design effective solutions. You lose access to your executive functioning and are more likely to make mistakes or elect to pursue short-term solutions at the expense of long-term gains. Instead, cue your Vanilla Ice earworm, stop, collaborate and listen. Avoid the impulse to act when tensions run high and take the time you need to gain proper perspective before making any strategic decisions. Do not press send, do not add one last thing and do not make command decisions while your nervous system is poised for survival mode.
Address Root Causes
Individual efforts to manage stress are all well and good, but these efforts can feel futile if we return to organizations that continue to produce chaotic environments and reinforce stress-laden leadership behaviors. Successful leaders see heavy workloads and intense working conditions as opportunities to evolve beyond existing organizational structures and innovate to achieve a balanced working life. My people (aka Professional Certified Coaches) can be amazing and crucial allies for any leader coping with ongoing stressful working conditions. Not only can we help to identify counterproductive stress behaviors and design strategies to proactively mitigate intense professional conditions, we can also identify ways to improve organizational strength and reduce the intensity and frequency of high-pressure situations at work. Sometimes you just need a partner to come in and remind you that although you have been tolerating and coping with stress for a long time, your organization deserves better than a leader who is surviving instead of thriving.