We've all felt the pressure of heavy deadlines and important projects pulling our attention in too many directions. An entirely stress-free workplace doesn't exist, so how do we set our organizations up to best handle the inevitable stress that's bound to affect your team? One of the biggest barriers that prevent regular stress from becoming a driver of burnout is company culture. A strong culture will subtly work to create an environment where employees can handle stress in a healthy, sustainable way.
This type of company culture comes directly from leadership and is nurtured, maintained, and fiercely protected by everyone in a leadership position. Without leaders’ support and constant attention, the culture will waver and fade. It's not that individual employees don't play significant roles in protecting, promoting, and creating a positive culture, but their tone and approach only affect them and those closest to them—not an entire team or organization.
Leaders must be especially aware of their responses to stress because their reactions and approach will set the tone for everything.
The attitude trickle-down effect
Whether we like to admit it or not, employees must be constantly attuned to their direct manager—interpreting signals, communication, and behavior to ensure they're meeting expectations. It isn't the most comfortable thing to admit, but it's true. It's built into the social structure of our organizations. Whether they like it or not, leaders within organizations have a much more significant impact than simply helping their team meet deadlines.
The way leaders manage stress will be directly reflected in their team’s behavior. We naturally pick up on the energy of those leading us—it tells us whether we need to be rushing or taking our time. It sets the tone for how we feel about our tasks and how we approach them.
If leaders are responding to stress by:
- Becoming accusatory and looking to place blame on others
- Cutting people off and rushing communication
- Micromanaging other peoples' responsibilities
- Working extreme hours
- Becoming scattered and disorganized
Then their team will begin to respond to stress in the same way.
The harder it is to do, the more important it is to do it
No one is perfect, and leaders are no exception. They must learn to navigate their own unhealthy tendencies while continuing to be strong leaders for their teams. That means cultivating self-awareness and tools and resources to lean on to help them maintain a healthy leadership style in stressful situations.
The harder it is to maintain healthy responses to stress, the more critical it is to do so. Because if it's stressful for the leader, you had better believe it's stressful for the team. And when a leader poorly responds to stress, the team is forced to deal with the added and unnecessary burden of their leader's stress on top of what stress is already there.
As leaders—and anyone for that matter—it can be helpful to practice some techniques to help catch themselves before they fall into unhealthy stress responses.
- Check in with yourself. Use a mindfulness practice like journaling or daily self check-ins to keep track of your emotional pulse. The faster you can identify that you're feeling stressed, the easier it is to remind yourself of the tools and resources you have access to.
- Communicate with consistency. Set boundaries around how and when you communicate. Avoid communicating in the middle of the night and during personal time. If you find that you're compelled to do so, ask yourself if it's going to help or if it's just your stress making you feel like it will help.
- Pause before getting involved. If you feel compelled to check over someone's work or ask them how things are going, slow down and ask yourself if it's for a good reason. Stress can often trigger us to want to control or take over a situation, even if capable people are already on it.
As leaders, it is crucial to have the self-awareness to realize when we are exhibiting signs of stress and take steps to manage it appropriately. Sometimes we make mistakes, and it's just as important to take responsibility for them after the fact as trying to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Knowing yourself and your tendencies is the first step to appropriately responding to stress. A cool, calm, and collected leader generates a balanced and sustainable workplace that can handle obstacles and challenges with confidence.
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