Stress is a thief. It robs of us peace of mind. It siphons off precious cognitive resources. It narrows our perspective, encourages us to be self-focused, and diminishes our decision-making quality. And many of us are up to our eyeballs in stressful situations every day at work. Sometimes it’s a critical event that comes out of nowhere and throws us off course, and sometimes it’s the slow burn behind the scenes caused by a brimming in-box and and to-do list that runs off the page.
Why are we so stressed out? Well, I think our very neurology prods us to it. There is a well-established model of performance that shows that we operate optimally at moderate levels of stress. Too little is just as problematic as too much. And in the context of business, which side do you think we’re going to err on? We purposefully tip into the red zone to reap the rewards, hoping we’ll be lucky and avoid the scorch of burnout.
If you’re a leader or manager, you’re probably even more stressed out. And I have more bad news: it’s your job to manage not just your own stress, but to help other people grapple with theirs, too. But that’s the challenge – we aren’t at our best when we’re in the grips of the stress response. Our people aren’t their best. Stress isn’t going away. Managing stress doesn’t mean removing stressful events. It means developing methods for bringing ourselves back to equilibrium, by expanding the range in which we can be effective, and leading others effectively through the event. We need resilience and influence.
How do we become more resilient? The first step to not getting swept away on a tide of negative emotions is realizing when the waters are welling up and threatening to breach the levee. We need to be on the lookout for the signs. Monitoring both our thoughts and physical state encourages self-awareness. What thoughts are racing through? Are they helpful? Are they true? Are we clenching our jaw or fists? Breathing shallowly? Experiencing tension in the face?
We can purposely employ useful thoughts that align with and dial down the emotions we’re feeling: “Wow, I’m really anxious I won’t be able to finish this on time. Well, I suppose I really only need to do the analysis by the end of the day, then I will be on track to do prepare the report by the end of the week.” The more we tune in, the finer point we can put on what we’re feeling, and the better we can then self-manage. We can employ relaxation and breathing strategies that lower heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of stress-relieving hormones.The more we practice self-awareness and self-management, the more quickly and easily we can move from a negative state back to a positive state, and the more resilient we are in the face of stress across time.
And then we can lend this strength to others. Leaders are in powerful position to influence the emotions of others. Emotional contagion is a very real phenomenon. As part of our wiring as social animals, our brains contain cells called mirror neurons, which fire when we observe other people. When we see someone experiencing an emotion, our mirror neurons give us a micro-experience of what they’re feeling. They serve as the biological basis for empathy. This is also the process that allows us to “catch” and “spread” both positive and negative emotions. Further, there is research showing that this contagion effect is even stronger among followers relative to the leader: your role as a leader in establishing the emotional climate is considerable. When you are calm, other people will tend to moderate their own emotions to match yours. Learning to calibrate the emotions you show and share is crucial to having the influence you want to have on others.
Navigating the emotional ups and downs of striving hard in pursuit of goals that keep moving into the horizon isn’t always easy, but we can expand our capacity to cope with the inevitable stress that results, and strengthen our leadership repertoire in the process.