Have you ever been in the presence of a leader, who in midst of a crisis, seems to hold a calm focus and move the group deliberately in the direction of a solution? And conversely, have you been in the presence of a leader in a similarly serious situation who panics, is unable to keep sight of the big picture, and scatters people's effort in all directions? Most of us have experienced both. And few of us have taken the time to develop our stress response and as a leader, this is critical.
Managing stress and overcoming obstacles and setbacks is at the crux of great leadership. The challenge with stress management is that stress doesn’t feel manageable when you're in it. As human beings, our ability to predict how we will act under the emotional pressure of stress is terrible. When we're in it, it feels like it is happening to us, not something we can control, let alone chose. But in fact, what is experienced as stressful differs from one person to another, depending on our own circumstances. Each of us has our own, unique history and experience about what events are stressful. Our interpretation of the situation is what creates the experience of stress. Stress doesn’t exist absent of our perception of it.
What causes our Stress Perception?
What we experience as stress is based on our life experiences and beliefs. How we react to what we think is stressful is biological and critical for survival. When we’re stressed the amygdala activates our central stress response system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. This stress response system regulates hormones, particularly the stress hormone cortisol which can rapidly increase glucose levels, speed the heart rate, and increase blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs (which creates the butterflies in the stomach feeling). Our focus narrows (no time for creative thinking) and our survival (fight or flight) reaction is triggered. A pending product recall triggers the same internal response systems as being chased by a bear.
Q1: Which circle is larger, the left or right?
Initially, we experience the circle on the right as larger. Our brain instantly uses the surrounding elements as a reference and creates an assessment. Most of us have seen this before, so we may know that they’re the same size, but even so, it's difficult not have the perception of size difference. With a little effort, we disregard surrounding elements and accept that they are the same size. And even when our perception continues to create a shadow of doubt, we can feel confident.
Q2: Which is more difficult, batting in a regular season game or in the World Series?
Given the importance of the game and how much is at stake, clearly batting in a World Series game is much harder. Right? It would be understandable, since it’s not a ‘regular’ game. But not necessarily. Consider Red Sox batting legend, David Ortiz, as an example. In the 2013 World Series, Ortiz batted “an ungodly .688”. During the series, his hitting was described as “being, oddly enough, unemotional.” With the pressure of the World Series, how is this possible? Ortiz’s take on his performance under pressure: “I was born for this.” The difficulty of the situation is measured by how it is perceived.
Leading ourselves & others through stress
Some stress management trainings focus on creating a balance between stressful time and relaxing time or eliminating stressors. When you’re leading a group toward an important goal, you are naturally exposed to more stress provoking circumstances because on the risk / reward spectrum, you have higher risk and bigger stakes. Removing obstacles and attaining time balance are rarely feasible choices, so adapting your stress perception is key.
Here are some elements that you can try to build a strategy for responding to stress:
Identify your stress signals. Learn to recognize your unique physiological signs of stress. Does your jaw clench? Do your shoulders rise up to your ears? Does your stomach turn?
Reframe the stress. Often our blood pressure rises because we are required to do something important. You response is affirming that it matters, a lot. You're getting the gift of an adrenaline pop that will heighten your focus and apply yourself.
Breathe. Deep breathing is an effective strategy for alleviating in-the-moment tension and is also easy to execute in more situations. To bring your heart rate down and help your brain move to a calmer state, you want your exhale to be longer than your inhale. Try a few 4-7-8s. (Inhale for a count of for, hold your breath for 7 exhale for 8)
Think yourself down. When we’re stressed, the negative voice inside our heads can gets loud and persistent. Talk to yourself in a logical, calm tone and inject some positive evidence into your internal dialogue. “I've had a challenge like this before and I figured it out. I will handle this, too."
Walk it out. Go outside if possible and even a brief walk around the building can help create space from the "problem" and help a few new possibilities sneak into your thoughts.
Talk it through. With somebody you trust, share the circumstance, what you're thinking about the situation, and how those thoughts are making you feel. As a leader, we need to be thoughtful about who this person is. Ideally, this is an unbiased and unaffected person with strong active listening skills, or a coach.
Once you have a strategy, it’s all about the practice. Imagine how many at bats Ortiz had before he felt like he was born for World Series performance. The guarantee of leadership is that you will have plenty of opportunities to practice. And will see progress in your ability to stay in the zone, regardless of the stakes or circumstances.