Our lives are undoubtedly busier and more stressful, the result of tremendous uncertainty in our world today. Leaders generate a high degree of emotional and physical stress that leaves them exhausted. However, for leaders to be most effective, they must not only be able to recognize and manage their own stress but be compassionate to the stress of their team as well.
The importance of managing one’s own stress reactions is often overlooked in our fast-paced world, but it must be a priority if you want to excel as an effective leader. Here are five key strategies for leaders that can help manage this stress:
Looking for more? Our article from Wharton Healthcare Quarterly explores how empathy is perhaps the most powerful tool a leader has during these dynamic times. Download a copy here.
Identify Stressor Reactions
Stress is often triggered by emotional responses. The limbic brain, which interprets crisis from an angry insult, for example, responds similarly to how ancient people reacted to fear of being chased by a predator.
This response often reveals hidden personality traits that can negatively impact interpersonal communication. Identifying the source of stress and recognizing when these triggers are present is key to managing one's own response.
When faced with stress, the brain's most basic survival needs can get triggered. First we assess the threat and then, if necessary, react with appropriate physical response: Flight, Fight, or Freeze. While these reactions were necessary for survival in more primitive times, they are not conducive to creating a modern work environment that aims to promote teamwork and foster camaraderie.
Being adept at recognizing these reactions and how they present in our modern day-to-day interactions allows leaders to increase their emotional intelligence and effectiveness as a leader.
- Flight response is characterized by the need to avoid confrontation and often leaves an individual feeling drained, depleted, disinterested in work or other activities. A person displaying this type of reaction will withdraw from their interactions with others as a means of self-protection. This withdrawal can lead to isolation which may be manifested through substance abuse, lack of energy for work tasks, or reduced productivity levels.
- Fight response is demonstrated through aggression and anger that typically leads to aggressive communication styles such as sarcasm, passive aggressiveness or overt hostility directed at superiors or team members.
- Freeze response is characterized by a lack of response to stimuli and may be seen in cases where an individual feels overwhelmed. The freeze response is often accompanied by feelings of fear or helplessness.
Left unchecked, the flight, fight, and freeze responses can have significant negative consequences on the individual’s wellbeing and have a negative impact on team culture. It is imperative for leaders to check in with team members to connect and communicate on a regular basis, but during challenging or chaotic times on a more frequent cadence.
Create time and space to recharge
During check-in meetings, leaders should start by acknowledging their own stress levels and then open the discussion to others. They should also provide opportunities for team members to interact with each other on non-work-related topics, which creates deeper interpersonal connections and lowers job anxiety. Additionally, leaders should encourage themselves and their teams to take the time and space to recharge and avoid fatigue.
Building community among team members will lead to resilience. When people are honest and transparent with one another, it creates a vulnerability which builds relationships that offer closeness throughout the recovery process.
Cultivate Psychological Safety
It is important that leaders create an environment that values candor, vulnerability and authenticity in relationships. As you meet with others or work with your team, approachability should be something to consider. It is equally important for leaders to evaluate their own behaviors and moods while inviting trusted advisors into the process as well.
Leaders must be willing to take on tough conversations with a level of empathy, recognizing that it is not easy for others. Creating an environment where people feel safe will help them remain engaged in conflict-promoting discussions that lead to more creative problem solving and accelerates team performance.
Leaders should also create time and space for themselves to recharge and find ways to deal with their own stress the best they can. Pursue active stress relieving activities such as exercise, yoga or meditation and create on-the-job strategies to decrease work pressures.
A leader needs to have the courage to acknowledge emotions rather than avoid them. One of the most powerful tools a leader can deploy is to simply listen and validate the experiences of others. “Name it to tame it,” is a phrase coined by author and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel that best describes why empathy is so impactful.
You can't manage your team unless you are managing yourself first. The key to success is understanding and recognizing the emotional toll that stress takes on us as well as being aware of our own physiological responses in stressful situations. Be attentive to the needs of your team by creating an environment that values candor where employees feel safe enough to share their thoughts openly without fear of repercussions or judgment. In a culture where people feel like they have voice and worth, it's easier for them to be resilient when faced with challenges because they know their opinions matter. Stress reactions will still happen but these steps can help minimize them so you can maintain composure while leading others through tough change.