Leading Others Through Stressful Times

Even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, work tends to serve up high-stress challenges. On any given day, you may be called on to deal with unrealistic expectations, competition for talent, new initiatives where you can shine (or fail) in the spotlight and team members pulling in opposite directions.
That’s when you need your A game the most, but when you are already highly stressed it’s nearly impossible to perform at your best and lead effectively because we think and act differently when stressed.  
Prime your brain
Sometimes, stress creeps up on you, but a lot of the time, you can predict stressful situations or identify an escalating situation and act before you enter the “red zone” where you would rate stress levels at about seven out of ten. “Look at what triggers you and then address those feelings proactively,” suggests Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., psychologist and success coach. Lombardo will lead an educational session on how to optimize your leadership during stressful times at the 2022 WFF Leadership Conference March 20-22 live in person in Dallas and virtually. Lombardo is the best-selling author most recently of Get Out of the Red Zone.
Because it’s nearly impossible for the brain to think rationally when highly stressed, it makes sense to prime your brain ahead of stress to be better positioned to lead yourself and others out of the red zone. Some proactive practices include:
  • Look at what triggers you and intervene before things go off the rails. “Address the issues that you know trip you up,” Lombardo advises. “If stress is rising because you feel unvalidated, unseen or unappreciated, ask for what you need, or even provide it yourself.” Take five minutes to show yourself the same compassion you might show a good friend, to acknowledge that you’re doing your best in a demanding situation and to ask for more support from others.
  • Plan to steer the conversation in ways that can lower the temperature when you are heading into potentially combative conversations or negotiations. Even if you expect a colleague to bristle at a concept you’re presenting, there might be points where you do agree and you can switch to those for a period to help everyone cool down.
  • Have a reward waiting for you that you can look forward to after completing a stressful task. Maybe you schedule a coffee break with a trusted workplace friend immediately following a high-stress meeting. Or, you order in lunch for the team after a big presentation where you agree not to talk about work for one hour.
  • Start the day on a positive note. Fun music, silly videos, exercise, meditation, cuddling your kids, anything that decreases stress provides a more empowering start to the day. Even before the pandemic, research showed that three minutes of news at the start of the day increased chances of high stress by 27%, according to Lombardo.  
Leading others
“Being a great leader means bringing out the best in others to work toward a common goal, especially when the situation is challenging and there may even be competing needs within the group,” Lombardo says.
A critical capacity among effective leaders is the ability to help your team expand their vision and see more possibilities. When you sit in high stress, your vision narrows and it becomes more difficult to consider other viewpoints, problem-solve more creatively and even to see options available to you. A strong first step is to acknowledge the stress that you and team members are feeling and then to implement interventions to bring stress levels out of the red zone. Lombardo uses the acronym HELM to capture key techniques you can use in the moment.
The H stands for halt. Your very first response, she says, is to stop what you’re doing and not say anything until you can calm down. The E relates to exercise and simply moving your body. High-energy physical movements, such as jumping jacks, going for a run or a brisk walk, will cause biological changes to help you get out of the red zone. The L is tied to laughter and its ability to quickly shift your perspective. Lombardo suggests even a quick and silly YouTube video to change your mental state. Finally, the M is for music because it has such a powerful impact on emotions and can quickly transport you to a happier time or more positive feelings.
“These are techniques you can bring to your team members in moments of high stress to diffuse tension, help bodies reset and bring brains back online,” Lombardo says. “Many situations at home and at work we cannot change. But we can change our emotional reactions in ways that enable us to better deal with difficult circumstances and the stress they contain.”
One of the most powerful tools in the effective leader’s toolkit is role modeling. By sharing and demonstrating ways of priming your brain to deal with stress, and then using techniques to bring down the temperature when stress rises into the red zone, you can help team members feel safe enough to acknowledge their own stress, ask for help when they need it and access techniques that can calm, rather than exacerbate, tough situations. 
REGISTER today for the 2022 WFF Limitless Inspiration Leadership Conference to tap into an exceptional opportunity to learn, network and grow.

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