Leaders and managing workplace stress

There’s a lot of stress going around these days.  And leaders need to know how to handle it.  But first, they need to understand it. 

About stress:

  • It’s impossible to live without stress, especially in the workplace. 
  • Stress is not what happens to you, it’s how you react to what happens to you. 
  • With no stress, you’re bored.  With too much stress you’ll be dysfunctional.  With just the right amount of stress, you can be very productive.
  • However, people have different tolerance levels.  What’s exciting and a welcome challenge for one person is anxiety-producing and dreadful to another. 
  • The key isn’t to learn how to avoid stress; it’s learning how to better cope and adjust.

Leaders can help by first taking care of themselves.  It does no good for your people if you are stressed-out, making rash decisions, blaming, lashing-out, or exhibiting any other dysfunctional behavior.  Like with the oxygen mask on an airplane, take care of your own stress first, then help others.

How to help yourself:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Learn how to relax or meditate — it’s been proven to be effective in negating stress
  • Consider reducing or eliminating caffeine intake — do it slowly or you’ll get withdrawal headaches
  • Get a good night’s rest
  • Eat healthy foods
  • In circumstances beyond your control, go with the flow — such as in rush hour traffic
  • Change how you interpret events — see the glass as half full
  • Instead of simply reacting to stressful situations, take a deep breath first
  • Use your support system – share thoughts, feelings, challenges with those you trust and are supportive
  • Inject humor

For your people:

People get most stressed from two things:  first, not knowing what will happen or is likely to happen, and second, having no control over what will happen.  You can’t control the economy, but as the leader, you can control what you do about it.  So do these things:

  • Tell people what you know, what is likely to happen, and what is your gameplan.  (Let them know what to expect.)
  • Let them participate in deciding what they should do now to help with the situation.  (let them have some control or influence over the situation.)
  • Encourage them to follow the tips above

Hope Wins

People want to believe.  They want to know what their leaders see for the future.  They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, but they want also to be a part of something they understand and can believe in.

Barack Obama won.  He won easily even though we don’t really know what he’ll be like in office.  He won because his message was one of hope and optimism (Yes We Can) even while acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead.

Great leaders have a vision of their business in the future, and they have the ability to articulate that vision so that their people can understand and buy into it.

A vision is nothing like what most companies call “vision statements” — you know, the list of high-flying generalities (“Our vision is to be the best provider of widgets in the acme industry.”)  That’s not a vision.  That’s a bunch of words that don’t really connect to anyone on an emotional level.  And that’s the important part of a real leader’s vision — the ability for people to connect emotionally.  Did you see the faces of people in Grant Park last night?

A vision paints a picture of the future that can be experienced vicariously by the listener.  That makes hope real, even if it’s not tangible.

The ability to articulate that vision is the second key, because unless the vision is articulated, it won’t be experienced in the imagination.  And if it’s not experienced, it’s not fully communicated.

If you want to get a high return on people, you need to have a vision and be able to articulate it.  People work harder, are more innovative, and more engaged if they connect both intellectually and emotionally to the vision and the strategy.  When they aren’t given the vision, or when it doesn’t connect, they become cynical.  Cynical people go through the motions and infect others with their energy-sapping opinions.  They sure don’t perform anywhere near their potential.

Obama won on hope.  Now he has to deliver.  Let’s hope he’s successful, and do what we can to help.