There's no question about it: Today's workplace is stressful. The long work hours, the endless flow of information, the competing demands on our attention -- all of these factors can make us feel perpetually overwhelmed and out of control if not managed well.
The conditions that lead to stress are not bad, they’re just reality.
The best leaders learn to deal with the conditions and problems that lead to stress in a way that keeps everyone on track. How you behave when times are bad truly defines you as a leader and sets the tone for how others manage the situation. If you create a culture where people fall to pieces when things get tough, it will be too stressful for employees (and they will likely leave), productivity will suffer, and all this ultimately will make your job harder.
Relationships are defined by how we behave under stress. Difficult, busy times puts strain on relationships, but they can also forge stronger bonds if handled the right way.
When your team sees you pull things together and navigate them out of a tricky situation, it can be a huge credibility builder. Conversely, when they see you fall apart, it can create a trust deficit that is hard to recover from, even when things settle down.
A few suggestions for managing yourself with grace under stress.
Fine tune your organization
Work to create a best-odds environment for eliminating problems. Things will go wrong from time to time. You can't control everything. However, there are lots of things you can control. Make sure you have good processes and procedures in place for eliminating avoidable headaches. For example:
- Plan for disaster by learning from mistakes and fixing the culprits;
- Identify stress points and think critically about who they impact. What is causing increased workloads?
- Use this evaluation to decide where to delegate work and identify team members who might need additional support. Don't lower expectations, either. This only breeds excuses and erodes performance over time;
- Say no to some requests. This way you don't have to scurry around trying to do them and then later explain why you didn't get them done.
A big to-do list should not freak you out. Everyone is busy and they should be. Just use the list to work in a sensible order (evaluating daily what is most important). Often, we try to close out small tasks to make room for bigger ones, when what we should be doing is prioritizing our to-do list and staying focused on the things that really matter. Just "getting things done" may feel good in the moment but what really matters is getting the big things done.
Bring order and clear thinking to chaotic situations. Keep an eye on what really matters and what can be cut away. A good leader can make a potentially crushing workload feel manageable. By taking a cool and methodical approach, you can make a huge difference in helping others stay focused and productive and keep their stress reactions in check.
Create a culture of calm
Be sensitive to the messages you're sending out. Model calmness when things are chaotic. You teach your employees how to behave based on how you behave. The things leaders do, both positive and negative, get mirrored. And research shows that the ripple effect of negative emotions is considerably more intense than that of positive emotions. If employees see you panicking, they are likely to panic. If they see you staying calm and focused on solutions, they will mimic this behavior as well.
Also, try not to show physical signs of stress. Wringing your hands and pacing around anxiously will not make things better. In fact, it will likely make your employees more worried and stressed out, negatively impacting their performance.
Don't blow things out of proportion
Do everything you can to keep a level head. Sometimes tempers flare when things are stressful. Avoid letting little things turn into big problems. When leaders lose their cool, problems only escalate. People get upset, and their productivity plummets. Plus, explosions can cause long-term damage and tank a leader's credibility. In the end, all of this means more time fixing avoidable problems.
Be careful about the words you use and the stories you tell. Avoid using words like "slammed" or "overwhelmed." There is nothing wrong with stating that you are busy, but how you talk about being busy and carry yourself impacts others. It has a ripple effect. Just because you are stressed, it doesn't mean everyone else has to be. Don't bring your stress to the people.
Keep the past in its place
Leaders can generate a lot of stress for themselves and others by rehashing mistakes and misses. Yes, frame these mistakes as learning experiences but don't keep talking about them over and over and telling the story. It just becomes gossip at that point. Instead of focusing on past challenges, look for what's right and constantly celebrate bright spots. This shifts the focus inside the organization.
Don't pretend to be fearless
A mistake leaders make is to pretend that everything is fine when it clearly isn't. Sometimes acknowledging that a situation or negative circumstance is real, and possibly even scary, is the best way to build trust with your team and get them to invest 110 percent on solving the problem. This is not the same thing as getting bent out of shape. You can be honest and calm at the same time.
Help others manage stress
Busy, stressful times are when you need cooperation and engagement the most. Yet it's during these times that tension builds, emotions run hot, and people explode or otherwise behave badly. Recognize this and put a plan into place to help people deal with frustrations and conflict in a way that won't harm the team's ability to perform. For example, you might ask everyone to be mindful of their tone when communicating while under pressure. You might also ask others to jump in and help when they see a coworker getting overwhelmed. As a leader, you need to not only manage your own stress but help others manage theirs, as well.
This gives you the stamina you need—both physical and mental—to cope with stress and keep going. Sleep well, eat well, stay hydrated, and generally take good care of your body so you'll be in tip-top shape mentally. This requires discipline and planning, but health and well-being are too important to leave to chance. Good habits fall to the wayside during busy times. You may be tempted to skip lunch because you're too busy to eat, or you’re up till 5 a.m. working. Remind yourself that this is counterproductive. You can't perform if you are sleep-deprived and sugar-crashing because you didn't take time to pack a nutritious lunch and ate from the vending machine instead. If you aren't healthy, you won't be able to cope when stress levels kick into overdrive.
Learn to reset
Setbacks will happen. Leaders must be able to bounce back quickly and continue to move forward even when things appear to be falling apart. Resiliency is essential as leaders need to have the mental wherewithal to offer support and continue to direct their teams. Being resilient comes from having good coping skills, supportive environments with a lot of psychological safety, a strong sense of optimism, grit, and the mental and physical stamina to sustain and move through stressful situations. Work on all of these factors but also know that resiliency also comes with growth.
Quint Studer is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader's Handbook and a lifelong businessman, entrepreneur, and student of leadership.