How to Translate Leadership Stress into Performance Improvement

group of business professionals applauding a leader who accomplished a difficult task
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A client checking in with me for a coaching call described his morning’s activities as follows: “I started my day by firing a long-standing employee for an ethical violation. Then I made a final decision on a strategic hire for our sales team. After extending the offer, I met with the senior management group and convinced them to fund a new strategic investment and put a dagger in the heart of a major legacy product category. And then I grabbed my second cup of coffee.”

This type of morning might be mentally and emotionally exhausting for many of us. For my client, it was a good, productive morning. He does a great job translating stressful situations into challenges in need of conquering. Stress serves as a productivity enhancer for this professional.

Stress and leadership go together hand-in-hand. From difficult decisions about people to vexing choices on direction and investment, every individual who serves in a leadership capacity has effectively signed on to own the issues no one else will touch. The pressure can range from exhilarating for some to mentally and physically debilitating for others.

While organizations that regularly appear on lists of “Best Companies to Work For” are known to take managing workplace stress seriously, offering such perks as mindfulness coaching, yoga courses, on-site fitness facilities and even massage therapy, the majority of us are on our own for managing this phenomenon.

 Here are 7 ideas to help you corral the stress in your work life and translate it into better performance and productivity.

7 Ideas to Help You Manage Workplace Stress for Performance Gains:

1. Keep it in perspective, part 1. In general, the most difficult issues in our professional lives pale in comparison to those we navigate as part of the human condition.

Yes, your decisions impact lives and livelihoods and you should take them seriously. However, on your worst day in most organizations, you are not navigating life or death situations. Keep the issues in perspective. A wise mentor once offered to me: "The only things that count are family, faith, health and country. Everything else is just politics and money."  

(Note: for those in the armed forces in harms way or serving as emergency responders and medical and healthcare professionals, your service is valued and your unique levels of stress are outside the scope of this post.)

2. Keep it in perspective, part 2.  Regularly remind yourself that your role as a leader affords you a unique opportunity to serve for the greater good. When facing a difficult call, remember that your colleagues and their families are depending upon you to make a good decision. This humbling reminder helps you reframe the stressful issue and focus on pursing the path with the best possible outcome for the broader population.

3. Burn the stress off by moving your body. There are very few prescriptions for managing your stress levels better than moving your body, ideally in the form of a strenuous workout. The physiological benefits of exercise are well-established and most organizations encourage and even offer incentives for employees to exercise more.

It is ideal if you have access nearby to facilities for a lunch hour workout. If not, hit the stairs or head outside for a vigorous walk. If you cannot wait for lunch or the end of the work day, cancel one of the endless status meetings on your calendar and use the time to exercise. One manager I worked with would hit the stairwell in-between meetings or calls. It caught on and a friendly competition emerged for who could climb the most stairs every month. It helped them burn calories and blow off steam. 

4. Rewire your thinking about stress. Our typical reaction to stress created by uncertainty or sudden change is fear followed by the fight or flight response. Instead of reacting in this manner, work to calm yourself and shift your thinking to view unanticipated events and stressors as important challenges.

While the words are easy and the work difficult, when presented with  difficult situations, repeat an internal mantra that says, “This is a great challenge and I am here at this time to help with and learn from this challenge.” The better you become at shifting from the fear response to the challenge response, the more effective you will be in channeling the stress for performance improvement. Model this behavior openly and work on teaching your team members to respond to stressful events in the same manner.

5. Engage and involve your team members. Too many leaders bottle-up their stress, wrongly believing they must shoulder the burden all by themselves. While there are some decisions that only you as the leader can make, many stress-inducing situations will become easier to navigate if you explain the issue and involve your team members in developing solutions. Resist the urge to go silent on the tough issues.

6. Fine-tune your signal-to-noise ratio. When faced with difficult circumstances, it is easy to lose track of where you should focus. If the fear-receptors have triggered fight or flight, you may very well flail and not focus on finding a solution. Hit the pause button and review your activities to separate out those issues that are core to the situation versus those that are extraneous noise. Focus solely on the core topics until the situation is resolved.

7. Draw strength from historical examples. Some people lean on their faith for support. Others I know look to great examples in history. While a pending layoff or a major new competitor taking a bite out of your market share are serious issues, they pale in comparison to Lincoln’s burden to preserve the country or Churchill’s challenge to rally a nation and gain broader support in the face of almost certain defeat.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Stress is and always will be a part of leading. Your challenge is to identify techniques for channeling stress to bring out the best in yourself and your team. While no one heads to work hoping for a stressful day, you are encouraged to smile at the thought of the difficult issues and remind yourself that you are in a unique position at the right point in time to navigate these issues. And then go at them with a vengeance.