Pursue What Matters
Episode 102: Stress and Leadership
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you understand how stress shows up for you? Do you understand how stress shows up for your team members? So today we’re talking about stress and leadership, and knowing the signs of stress can make all the difference for you and your team.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:14
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Okay, so stress and leadership, that there’s no connection there, right. So if you lead, if you lead a team, if you lead an organization, you are going to experience plenty of stress. Now, if you’ve listened to any of my podcasts, you know, I like talking about stress, not because I like stress, necessarily. But I think we have been given mixed messages about stress. And hopefully, you’ve had a chance to check out our recent podcast, about stress, where I kind of go over why stress is not the problem. And so if you haven’t had a chance to check that out, I will link to that in the show notes, I think it can be a good overview, just in terms of the stress responses, and how changing our mindset to stress can actually shift the impact it has on us. And that is powerful knowledge, right? That stress actually is a sign that you’re living a meaningful life because you have things that you worry about and that are stressful to you because you care about them, you care about getting it right, you care about leading your people. And today with the episode, we are really focusing on how stress shows up in leadership.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:55
Now we will talk about that for you individually, with decision making with delegating with managing teams, and how stress can totally undermine your leadership capacity. But we’re also going to talk about how understanding the stress signs, not only for yourself, but for those you work with, can make a really big difference. Because here’s what we know, when stress shows up on teams, teams become incredibly ineffective. And of course, we don’t want that happening for you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:29
So that’s what we are going to be focusing on today. And of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters in love and work. I am passionate about helping you strengthen your confidence to lead. You have what it takes to lead. But sometimes you might not know that. And I want to make sure you have some good skills, tools and research on your side so that you can really pursue what matters and forget about the rest, right? There’s a lot of things in conventional wisdom that we think we should do. But it has absolutely no support. And sometimes it can actually be very undermining. And so I try to do that in one of three areas.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:09
So first of all clarity to lead. And the second is curiosity to lead which is all about self awareness. And the third is building and leading a community. And so as we think about this podcast today, stress on leadership, we’re really focusing on two primary areas, which is helping you develop the curiosity to lead. And that is that self awareness, learn to recognize your stress signs learn to recognize the impact of stress on leadership and decision making. That awareness can be a powerful tool to help you not get sidelined by stress. And that of course, the other area that will really focus on is leading and building a community. Because when you understand the impact of stress on leadership, and when you understand how these stress signs show up for you and your team members, you can work with them differently. And you can the stress lines differently and your team can be effective, and you can continue to grow rather than being undermined by stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:09
So with that, let’s jump into the impact of stress on leadership. And boy, there are lots of impacts. And maybe you have experienced that right? Like we have been through quite a year with the pandemic and everything else that that has set off a domino effect. And so you may certainly be familiar with, you know, the distress of the impact of stress on your leadership, on your teams on your organization. And so when we think about the impact of stress on leadership, the first thing to recognize is that stress overwhelms right it overwhelms our capacity to cope. It makes it difficult to think clearly. It makes it difficult to respond mindfully. Instead, we’re more likely to get reactive So when we think about this stress, overwhelm the mind and body kind of go into a survival mechanism, they work to simplify things. And if you want to take a listen to last week’s podcast, you will learn more about how that happens, what are the processes within the mind and body that serve to help us simplify in the face of stress. But the result of that, right, when we think about that impact, what happens is that management or leadership styles become more extreme, because we, our mind in our body kind of says I can’t look at all of these factors, there’s too many. And so I just need to pay attention to one or two. And unfortunately, this can lead to very extreme decision making, it can lead to extreme thinking, black and white thinking all or nothing thinking. And that can that can be disastrous for decision making in leadership. And so what let’s think about how this impacts decision making, for example, so we simplify. And simplifying is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll talk about that a little bit more, because actually, in general, simplification is good. But when it’s done under the auspices of a stress reaction, that can be very unhelpful. And so I’ll talk about that a little bit more, but we tend to so let’s think about this with decision making, we tend to simplify, we tend to get tunnel vision.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:29
So we can’t really pay attention to the whole field of play, we lose a sense of perspective. And then of course, that overwhelm. And so stress overwhelms our capacity to cope effectively. There’s the impact on decision making, like I just said, it also impacts your energy level, right? When we are bathed in stress, that is fatiguing. That is basically our body is operating on overdrive, it’s like you’re running a marathon. And so if you have chronic high stress levels, you’re going to be absolutely depleted, right. Sometimes we think about adrenal fatigue, we just think about those cortisol levels being really high. And, you know, one of the impacts of this is, you know, if we think about the overwhelm, is you’re not thinking about nuance, in these moments, you’re thinking about survival, right? When we are bathed in stress, we aren’t in the seat of creativity, we’re not able to look at nuance so much, we’re really looking at what do I have to do to survive. And so clearly, you’re not in thriving mode. And often that can feel like the fight or flight response, because that is one of the stress responses. But of course, you are probably not in mortal danger, which is what the fight or flight response should be reserved for. But our our minds and our bodies are amazing, but they have a hard time distinguishing whether that threat is real. And so if you feel like a missed deadline is, you know, disastrous, and the worst thing that could ever happen, your mind and your body are going to respond with a fight or flight response, which just is a huge insert of upsurge of stress hormones. And you know, over time, that becomes very depleting. And so one of the questions that can come up, right, as you’re, as you’re trying to manage this overwhelm is, do I run? Or do I stand my ground? Right? Or do I roll into the fetal position? So right? If you were to me a bear on the trail? This is the classic fight or flight or freeze response? Do I need to run? So flight? Do I need to stand my ground fight? Or do I need to freeze, meaning roll into that fetal position now, right, if you are meeting a black bear on the trail, you might stand your ground, you’d never flee from a bear, right? Because that’s going to set off their their pursue instinct. But with a grizzly bear, maybe you would roll in a fetal position, right. And so that’s what happens in leadership when we are chronically believing that we’re in fight or flight. And so like I said, the mind and body have a hard time distinguishing the stress we experience in life and death situations like meeting a bear on the trail, and the stress that has become chronic in our daily lives.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:21
So for instance, an angry response from a colleague or hard deadline at work can give you that same fight or flight response. And of course, we know that is really not healthy for you because you know, you’re not physically in danger, but your mind and body operate as though you are resulting in a cascade of physical, emotional, and cognitive events that are typically not consistent with best management practices, best leadership practices. And so let’s, let’s look a little more closely into what happens when you are in an intensely stressful situation and we’re talking about work right. So your boss He thinks you’re in fight or flight.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:01
But you know, it might just be a challenging situation at work. And so, right, the big stress reaction is to simplify, right and this we understand these biological responses, the pupils dilate, we close out outside sounds, we are hyper, hyper focused. And so when faced with stress, we really work together the mind body work together to simplify processes. And so we’ve developed this acute stress response fight or flight to chronic stressors, like work deadlines, team contention, etc. And that’s where it gets really problematic. So even though we may not be facing an intense stressor that involves life or death, our mind and body are reacting the same way. And so we move to simplify our responses. And what I would say we even simplify reaction. So instead of being responsive, which I think about as being intentional, being mindful, thinking things through, we react, and so we take action without really thinking, because it is a fear response. And, like I mentioned, while simplifying can be beneficial, there are also some costs when it comes to leadership. So some of the costs include difficulty seeing all the important angles to an issue, right. So if you are in a leadership position, you know, my contention is that one of your most important obligations is to main team perspective. That’s why when I think about how I can help you build your confidence to lead clarity is at the top of the list, because you’ve got to be able to see what matters, what does not, you’ve got to retain perspective. And so when you are in a stress reaction, and you work to simplify everything, you will get tunnel vision, you will have difficulty seeing all the important angles of an issue. And you can see how this can really lead to poor decision making, you also are less likely to generate ideas, because you’re in survival mode, right? And like I said, survival mode is not the seat of creativity, right? I mean, the exact opposite of that. And so a simplify strategy tends to shut down idea generation, and leave the leader really sticking to what works, or what is easiest, what’s what’s going to get me through the day, what’s going to get me through the week, what’s going to get me through the quarter. And so you shut out, I did generation you shut down creativity. And of course, that’s not helpful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:33
The other thing that can happen when we simplify as part of a stress reaction is there is a failure to balance immediate needs with overall goals. Right? And that, again, is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader, how can I pay attention to the details of the daily work in balance with our overall vision, in balance with our mission in balance with our big strategic goals and objectives. And so when we simplify that balance goes out the window, we are emotionally reactive, we have cognitive rigidity, right? So we are have are stuck in that all or nothing, thinking. And of course, we know one of the greatest signs of effective leadership. And also life satisfaction is cognitive flexibility. So that’s the name of the game, we think about neuroplasticity, we want to increase our cognitive flexibility. And when we move to a simplify strategy as part of a stress reaction, we get more rigid. And then of course, like I mentioned, the physical fatigue, because our bodies are locked in the stress cycle, we are bathed in the stress hormones, because our body thinks we are facing a bear on the mountain trail. And so of course, there’s going to be the surge of adrenaline which can help in the short term. But over time, there is intense physical fatigue and of course weak that can lead to burnout.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:01
So let’s think about the net effect of stress on leadership over time. So right like if you are chronically operating from simplify strategy, if you’re chronically bathed in stress, if your body and mind believe that you are chronically facing a bear on the mountain trail, without a lack of perspective of Okay, this is a challenging situation, but it’s not the end of the world like we can figure it out. The net effect of stress on management style is that leaders move to more extreme positions. So right when when it comes to vision and clarity, and moving your organization forward or moving your team forward, you’re going to have a more extreme position. It also moves you to a more extreme position with communication. So communication gets really short. It gets brief, it can be harsh, it can be reactive, and of course you know that just absolutely undermines psychological safety and the ability of other teams members to speak up. And to give another perspective, because they might not be based in the same stress. But when you get reactive with communication, it shuts down any sort of collaboration. And then of course, leaders can move to a more extreme position in terms of accountability. And so accountability gets harsh. Accountability can get very rigid. And it’s about I gotta hold this line. And there’s no room for nuance, there’s no room for, hey, what does this situation demand? What’s going to be best? You know, we think about our team members, they’re all unique. And so we, you know, in general, we want to have some good boundaries and good processes, some good structure, because, of course, that that creates sanity for everyone. But we also have to be willing to understand the unique experience of those we lead. And when we get moved to a more extreme position, when in terms of accountability, we lose that nuance, we lose that appreciation for the individual circumstances that folks are facing. And if you think about the last year with remote working and you know, other challenges to work life, that need for flexibility, and to have empathy for each of your team members, and the unique situations they find themselves in is so incredibly important. And if you can’t have some flexibility in that accountability process, you’re going to lose some of your best team members. And obviously, we don’t want that to happen. And so the net effect over time is that these extreme positions in terms of vision, communication and accountability become the new default. And that’s the important thing to pay attention to.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:42
So maybe the intense stress situation has receded. So you know, maybe you’re going through, like series a funding or Series B funding. And it’s high stress for everyone, right, so everyone’s in survival mode. And so people move to those more extreme positions. And now, let’s say you secure the funding, which is awesome. And like, that’s something that everyone should really celebrate. Of course, the work isn’t over, in some ways, the work is just beginning. But if you’re not careful, even when that stressor has receded, right, so the bear has left the mountain trail right and run off the other way, if you’re not careful, your leadership style, your management style, is stuck in the more extreme position, and that becomes your new default. And so think about that. Think about well, how that what how that unfolds over time. And the net effect is that anytime you meet another big stressor, right, if you’re not careful, if you don’t understand the effect of stress on leadership, every time you you run into a big stressor, whether personal or professional, you run the risk of taking more extreme positions as the default. And that’s where we can see leaders over time, move from a really great balanced leadership style, to a very ineffective extreme style. And part of that right, not all of it, but part of that is the impact of chronic stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:15
So you know, over time, that ineffective rigid position becomes the new default. And if your team experiences chronic stress that is so common in workplaces today, especially considering the last year, over time, these management approaches become even more extreme, incrementally moving the needle to more and more extreme positions over time. And this is where we start to see the following problems, right. And maybe you can relate, maybe you have seen this. We see culture, erosion, because there is less psychological safety on board. We see increasing difficulty motivating teams, because everyone’s moved to a rigid position. They’re they have a hard time connecting to purpose. They have a hard time connecting to how they took contribution, right, like seeing how their work matters, because we’re in survival mode. What we also see is high turnover. So people don’t want to work in stressed out environments. And here’s the thing, people don’t want to work with extreme rigid leaders. I mean, who who wants that that is miserable for everyone. And so you see higher turnover, you see a rise in absenteeism, right? So people just missing taking sick days, that sort of thing. More illness, add difficulty hitting targets and timelines. Because think about that when you’re in a rigid position. When you’re an extreme position, you don’t see the full field of play. And so you might set unrealistic timelines. You might set unrealistic targets and then when those aren’t met, because your accountability is more rigid There’s no ability, right or willingness often to self reflect and look at, hey, maybe our goal, or our target was a little off, it actually is just that the hammer comes down on those who missed the target or miss the timeline. And so of course, that erodes culture even more, and moves people more and more to that survival mode. And so of course, these are the dangers, these are the effects over time.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:28
So the first step really, is to pay attention to your own stress signs. Do you know your stress signs? Do you know how stress shows up for you what that looks like? what that feels like, what that means for decision making. And we have some typical stress signs that, you know, you might be able to recognize in yourself, you might be able to recognize in those you love or those you work with. But what I would say and this is where we think about curiosity, is get curious and get aware about how you typically cope with stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:03
So you know, one thing to pay attention to is, Are you an internalized, or an external Iser, okay, and so think about this for yourself, maybe think about this with people that you love and work with. And no, don’t go named naming names, or labeling them or telling them you’re an internalized or you need to cut that out, because that’s not going to help your relationships. But let’s think about what, what does it look like if you internalize your stress. So if you’re an internalizer, you tend to implode on yourself, right, and so the the bomb is exploding inside you, the stress is really taking its toll on you. And so you move to blaming and shaming yourself, for things not going well, or for the challenging situation, you may find yourself in. So it’s all about judgment and shame and blame and labeling. And yet, with an internal Iser things can be very smooth on the surface. So this can sometimes be difficult for others to recognize. And so you know, when I think about my stress signs, I am absolutely and internalize it, right, like I will just I will just take that stress in. But I will keep the calm veneer on the front. And I had an experience about oh, I think it was probably a year ago with a very dear friend of mine, who was also one of my colleagues. And so we’re friends, we’re close. And I was having a hard time, right. Like I had a lot of stress going on for me and I was a classic internal Iser, but you know, I recognize, okay, this isn’t good. This is the you know, this is not a healthy way to cope. And so I had a conversation with this friend. And again, she’s a dear friend, she also works with me. And I told her, I said, I’m having a hard time and I just let her in a little bit more on what was going on. And her response was classic, because it really, it held up a mirror to me in terms of like how good I am at internalizing, which is not a compliment, right? Like, that’s not a good thing. But her response was, I had no idea. She said, I thought your your productivity is really remarkable. You’re efficient, you’re effective. It looks like you’re just sailing along. And so sometimes for internalizes, right, like you move inside, you take on too much responsibility. And what is the solution for an internal Iser, I’ve just got to work harder, I’ve got to do more, I’ve got to find a way to be better and to do better. And so on the outside, when people are looking at someone who isn’t internalize or who may be bathed in stress, what do they see? They see, oh my gosh, this person is so productive, productive, look how efficient he is, look how effective he is, look how proactive he is. And what they miss, is that all of these behaviors are the individual moving in a stress response. It is, you know, the heightened focus the the attention to detail, it is the internalized are trying to cope with stress, and they’re not going to let people in on that stress. So of course, it’s not helpful because they don’t get the help that they need, but others miss it. They have absolutely no freaking clue that the internal Iser is struggling. And on the surface, it just looks like oh my gosh, this person is killing it. Look how productive he is. Look how efficient she is. And so that one is tricky.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:53
So now let’s talk about that. Whether you are an externaliser right so the internaliser implodes on themselves. And externaliser, in response to stress will explode on the team, right? These are the folks that explode on colleagues who get snappy and biting. So they tend to blame and shame others while dry. And when that happens, everyone is running for cover to like a bomb has just exploded. And the shrapnel is going to hit us, there’s a ton of collateral damage for externalizes. And so this shows up as yelling, blaming, pushing off responsibility to others, you know, saying like that this person is just lazy. It’s really, really caustic it is toxic for the psychological safety of a team. So what I want you to hear though, that is of course, while both are very dangerous, and carry very high costs, being an internalized are can be more insidious, because here’s the thing, it’s happening under the surface, it’s happening underground. And it is what will really lead to burnout. Over time, it will be a recipe for resentment, and burnout over time. Because there’s right, I just have to work harder, and I’ve cut myself off from resources, I’ve cut myself off from support. But here’s the thing about externalizes. Right now, that is so unpleasant, if you’ve ever worked with an externalizer, or have experienced that at home, and that that it can be really traumatic, actually. But externalizers tend to out themselves very quickly as problems, right? And as like, gosh, dude, you you got to control yourself, because their behavior is so extreme, or it can be extreme. And so if you have a healthy culture, right, if you have strong psychological safety, at work, what will happen is that other team members will not put up with the external Iser, right. And so this leads to an intervention, this leads to a dude, you need to stop this kind of conversation. And so the externalizing behaviors are addressed more quickly, and directly because they draw attention to themselves. But But you know, there can be a lot of collateral damage. In the meantime, as you just have to watch out.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:36
Now, the one caveat that I would share about the externalizers is if you notice, I talked about the healthy work culture, and I talked about psychological safety. If you do not have a strong organizational culture, if you do not have a foundation of psychological safety in place, then those externalizers will wreak havoc on your teams. And sometimes over time, they become more emboldened, because folks are not bringing up the concerns, whether that’s because they’re conflict avoidant, whether that’s because they feel like they will get punished, whether that’s because there’s no accountability. So what’s the point? And so externalizes are incredibly hazardous organizations. If you have a strong psychological safety foundation and a strong work culture, and externalizes, issues get addressed much more quickly, because healthy team members won’t put up with it. But if we don’t have strong psychological safety and strong leadership, then these problems can really just continue to grow exponentially, and it is disastrous for everyone. So we want to pay attention to that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:50
So are you an internalizer? Are you an externalizer? What are the other ways that your stress signs show up? So for me, right, as an internal Iser, I go quiet, I get really quiet, I get really productive, I get really efficient. And I also take a view of I’ve got to do this all by myself, right? So you see how there’s a loss of perspective, you can see how it’s difficult to see nuance, it’s difficult to see other options, because you’re in survival mode. And so right decisions get more extreme. And then of course, with the external visor, if you recognize I am really quick to anger, I guess I can snap at people. Maybe you notice that you just harbor harbor wishes of harm to others, right and hopefully not real actual harm, but you start getting resentful in your heart and your mind. So maybe you’re not saying anything that would be blaming or shaming, but boy, your mind is awash in those kinds of accusations and so we want to pay attention to your Stress signs and how that shows up. So now let’s take that out one more step. Right. So we just talked about, oh, how stress shows up for you. And now I want to talk about how stress shows up on your teams. And of course, that’s an extension of everything we’ve been talking about.
Dr. Melissa Smith 30:18
Because when you can have awareness about the stress signs of team members, if you have a strong psychological Foundation, or psychological safety Foundation, which, of course we hope you are continuing to cultivate, then psychological safety helps you to address these concerns directly. So one of the most common ways that stress shows up on teams is walking on eggshells. And I would be surprised if you haven’t ever had an experience like this. So you can get you can feel someone’s hostility, you can feel someone’s anger, just boiling underneath the surface. And so team members start walking on eggshells. And what happens when we walk on eggshells, we have to be really careful, things are fragile, we maybe choose to avoid conversations that we need to have. We don’t challenge one another. We everyone is in fear mode. And so we do not want anyone walking on eggshells, because it will really knock the effectiveness of the team down about 10 notches. And so what can you do to address these concerns directly? First of all, if you notice yourself walking on eggshells, you need to stop it. So if there’s something that needs to be said, you need to say it. Now you can take care and gentleness in sharing concerns, but don’t avoid it. You can you can start by saying hey, I’m concerned about you. If it’s a one on one situation, sometimes that’s a lot better. But I’m concerned about you. I’ve seen some of your stress, shine signs show up. And I actually think so you don’t tell someone what their stress signs are, because that will not go well. But I think when you have an understanding of how stress impacts leadership, if you have a strong team, you can actually have these conversations, as a team to be able to say, you know what, and this could be at the end of the meeting, you know, you’d want to have some room for it. But to be able to say, Okay, listen, we’re all going through a challenging time right now, right? So if we think about the pandemic, or maybe you’re working on a big challenge, or a launch or something like that, at work, the leader can have a powerful impact in terms of saying, you know, this is hard, and I can feel the stress in me. And these are some of my stress signs, what do you understand about yourself, and that can open a conversation where team members can start to build more awareness, they can communicate about how their stress shows up. I’ve done this with leadership teams that I coach, and it can be really powerful, because it gives everyone permission to get support, it gives everyone permission to stop walking on eggshells to be able to say, Hey, I, you know, especially if you have a lot of trust in place to be able to say, you know, I’m a little concerned about you, it looks like there’s some tunnel vision going on. You can ask questions like, how can I support you? And what does support look like? You know, so you’re not trying to solve the other person’s problems. But you are saying I am here. I am willing, I am ready. And what do you need? And so I really like these questions of how can I support you? And what does support look like? Because it it moves it to the individual where they can actually think about that? Okay, well, it’s not helpful for you to continue to hound me about this assignment. But maybe we could do a check in to talk about the progress. And so that individual in the middle of the stress still has, the agency still has the responsibility, right, to identify what support could be helpful. And I think it can be helpful to offer suggestions. Because sometimes when someone is bathed in stress, right, they’ve got tunnel vision, they’ve got a lot of overwhelm. If you don’t offer suggestions, you might just get a blank stare in response, because they might not have a lot of insight about what could be helpful. So I do think it’s helpful to offer suggestions, but not to assume that you know, what is best for them.
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:38
Okay. So when we think about responding to stress out so now to this point, I’ve been talking about stress reaction. So these are these impulsive reactions when we are bathed in stress, they are not a good place to be taking action from but instead we want to respond to stress appropriately. Right. And so when we think about challenging tasks or challenging situations, they require integration, not simplification. So that’s one of the things I really want you to pay attention to as you listen to the podcast today. And as you think about take home points, when we’re facing challenging situations, the the the work or the tool that we need to utilize is integration, not simplification. Now, sometimes integration will include simplifying processes, but when we just moved to simplification, that’s where we run into a host of problematic behaviors, as I’ve just been talking about.
Dr. Melissa Smith 35:42
So let’s look at how you can integrate in the face of stress. So I’ve got several solutions for you. So solution one is perspective taking, right? So do you have the information you need to make a well informed decision? So when we think about perspective taking, we are slowing ourselves down, because stress speeds everything up. And so you’re building in space, to consider all the perspectives to really ask yourself some key questions. So these questions can include, do you have the information you need to make a well informed decision? Are you taking into consideration all stakeholder views, so you might just be looking at it from your own perspective, and failing to appreciate the impacts on other folks, I think it’s also really helpful to take a step back. So right, we’ve kind of think about the 10,000 foot view, the 20,000 foot view of the problem, and really looked at, you know, okay, am I seeing everything? And if I’m not what can help me to see everything? Do I need to bring in other perspectives, which we’ll talk about, but I think a helpful way to bring perspective is looking at the problem. Five years from now, so right, you’re looking back five years down the road, and you’re looking at that problem and saying, right, does how big of a deal is this? in five years? Is this still going to be a really big deal? Or I will I be like, Oh, yeah, like, that was a thing. But it wasn’t that bad. Like it didn’t need to take me down. And that can bring perspective.
Dr. Melissa Smith 37:23
So solution two, is to clarify concerns. are you solving the correct problem? So does the team have clarity about the concern in the first place? Sometimes, especially when we are reacting in stress, we’re solving the wrong problem. And of course, that’s going to throw us down, send us down a rabbit hole. It is, you know, it drains teams. And so you want to clarify the concerns, the consequences, right? What are the potential consequences of this problem, including the upside on the downside, you really want to take a look at sunk cost that will, that will often this idea of sunk costs will lead you to poor decision making. And ask yourself who is this a problem for? And why? So is this really a problem? Who is it a problem for? And why? What are the details of that. So you want to clarify the concerns, everything you can do to wrap your hands around the problem. And if you think about, you know, when we’re based in stress, that is the last thing we want to do, we move to avoidance, we don’t want to think about it because it is overwhelming. But here’s what you need to know, when you lean in to problem solving. When you lean into understanding the issue, you can start to take action. And that’s what lowers anxiety, that’s what helps you to move out of the stress response. But if your response is to avoid, or to avoid looking at the concern or clarifying it, that is a recipe for reinforcing that stress, and you stay locked in the stress cycle.
Dr. Melissa Smith 39:02
Okay, so the other thing to do is break down the concerns as needed, break down the problem. So maybe you say today, we’re only going to tackle this component of the concern. So keep your team focused and resist the pole to overwhelm. Of course, you know, you know, you need to address all aspects of you know, that that chain or that concern, but it can be very helpful to direct focus and think about, think about what step can we tackle now. And that really, you know, that’s taking productive action, which helps to lower the anxiety and it also builds momentum, because you start to, you know, strengthen this belief that okay, we can see ourselves through this and we can work together to get through this.
Dr. Melissa Smith 39:51
And the third solution is to utilize diverse strengths. And so right when you lose perspective, you cut yourself off from help and So who can you reach out to for help? Who can bring in perspective? Is it a mentor? Is it a sponsor? Is it a trusted colleague? Is it some of the team members? So we think about, who can you seek out? collaboration with? Where can you get feedback, because maybe you need personal feedback about your behaviors about how you’re getting more rigid? Who can you trust, to give you the honest truth? And then we also want to think about, you know, what are the strengths of the team. And if everyone brings the same skills to the table, you don’t have a very strong team. And a lot of times, this is a mistake that we make. in hiring, we want to work with people like us, because it confirms our biases, it helps us to feel like we’re doing a good job, but it may be the least helpful thing. And so you want diverse skills on a team. And you want to cultivate a diversity of strengths. So I want you to think in terms of culture, add, not culture fit, you do not want to be autonomous, right? Like we don’t want, we don’t want everyone looking the same, or having the same skill set on a team. So you can also invite diverse views and approaches. So it’s not a guarantee that your way is the best way, right? So we want to be humble, be open. And of course, again, when stress, our creative thinking really plummets. So it is possible that another team member that doesn’t feel the stress that you feel can see things more clearly. So you really need to invite diverse views, and then collaborate across disciplines. Because right like your team may be tackling a problem. And it’s really hard for you to see outside of you know, your limited view. And so this is where it can be so helpful to collaborate across disciplines. Because someone else who’s not stuck in your stress or isn’t limited by your understanding of the problem, they can see things that you don’t, and they can help. So that’s really very important and valuable. And if you can’t collaborate across in your organization, that’s where we want to cultivate strong networks.
Dr. Melissa Smith 42:23
Now let’s look at solution four which is to identify patterns and themes. So when facing a challenging situation, can you identify any patterns? Is there anything familiar about this situation that maybe you’ve experienced before, so anything you’ve seen before, even if the details are quite different, so we’re looking for themes. So maybe one thing that you notice is, I’m starting to walk on eggshells again. So maybe we need to have a conversation about how our stress is showing up. Because that could be a pattern that leads you to some discovery that leads you to Hey, team, we need to have a conversation about some effective decision making what we can do to slow the process down. So the ability to identify and connect patterns is a core component of high intelligence. So the smarter you are, the more likely you are to identify patterns quickly. But here’s the thing, you’re also at higher risk to stereotype because you think you have it all figured out. And so we want to be very cautious about that. We want to resist that poll. But taking the time to identify patterns, and to get curious about them to not move into I know it all will help make you and your team better critical thinkers. And there’s you know, there’s so much value there, because that’s where we really start to grow.
Dr. Melissa Smith 43:47
And then solution five is create coherence among competing agendas. So in order to get past the undertow of stress, you really need to create some coherence, which is not the same as simplification. So when we think about coherence, this is what I want you to pay attention to, what can we agree on? You know, we agree that we will focus on this part of the problem, or we agree about what the problem is. Now, we might have very different ideas about how to address that problem. But we can start there, we can find some coherence there. And so we’ll start there, identifying the competing agendas, and a green, what to prioritize, and why. And so, you know, some folks might have a very strong agenda that we start or prioritize one thing. And so being able to identify all those competing agendas, being able to identify the horizon conflict, so if you haven’t, if you’re not familiar with that, check out my podcast on horizon conflict. I will link to it in the show notes, but that helps everyone see what’s on the field of play what they need. need to be paying attention to. And then as a team, you can together prioritize what you’re going to start with and why. And sometimes the leader needs to do that. But you’ve got to communicate that you’ve got to be transparent. Let them know why we’re prioritizing this project over another project. Because this builds buy in. Some of your team members might not agree, they might be disappointed. But if they understand, then that can help with buy in.
Dr. Melissa Smith 45:31
Okay, so now we want to look at solution six, which is we want to enlist Devil’s advocates. So when we’re stressed, we often just want the problem to go away. Right, so we get pretty common, we get pretty avoidant, right, experientially avoidant, so we want the problem to go away, we want a decision to be made. And, you know, conceivably the worry to be off of our mind. But if you’re not careful, you short circuit good decision making by rushing to judgment or to decision. And so let’s take a deep breath, right? This is where we want to stress tolerance skills, and literally take a deep breath, I will help. But you want to lean into ambiguity while maintaining a tight process. So what does that mean? Right, so there should be a process for these discussions, because it will help manage the stress overwhelm. So that’s where a tight process, which is very clear, we know the purpose of this meeting, we know what we’re going to talk about, we have a timeline for decision making, can really help you and your team to manage the overwhelm. That comes with challenging situations and big decisions. And so you know, the process for these discussions will help you and your team manage that stress overwhelm. But here’s, here’s the news, you have to have a built in mechanism for challenging your work and stress testing, testing your decision making and your assumptions. And so this is how we balance that. And you know, some teams naturally have Devil’s advocates. And, but I would say if you don’t have that, right, or people are conflict avoidant, or they just want a decision made, you know, any natural devil’s advocate you have may go underground. But the other thing is to not be afraid of assigning this roll out during meetings, meetings, right? Like make it actually a formal part of that process, if you need to. So that the team really builds in these opportunities to look at diverse views, bring in new perspectives, pay attention to stakeholders, they may be missing. And then what I would say is, if you do that more formally, make sure you change the team member in this role. So there shouldn’t just be one devil’s advocate in a team, right. So maybe that devil’s advocate shifts according to, you know, the meeting or frequency, that sort of thing. And this process really helps everyone to become a better critical thinker. So just think about debate, think about, you know, if you did debate, if you’re familiar with debate, like in high school, that sort of thing. Getting getting comfortable with ambiguity, getting comfortable with challenging discussions, really makes you a better critical thinker. And so we definitely want to do that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 48:18
And then solution seven is to tolerate ambiguity. And you know, I mentioned this already, but the ambiguity can feel so stressful when you’re already overwhelmed, but we need for, for the sake of our team for the sake of our decision making, we need to learn in learn to lean into ambiguity. And challenging situations often do not have a perfect solution. So we want to resist that. That wishful thinking. And so we want to resist rigid expectations, and think in terms of the next best step. So especially in uncertain times, don’t expect to have a nice clean decision made, because that may not be very realistic. But maybe you need to think in terms of what’s the next best step. What do we need to do now? We want you to have a bias toward action. You can’t just be incapacitated by stress, you cannot just sit right. So even if you’re not actively making a decision, are you actively working on the process where you’re bringing in devil’s advocate, you’re bringing in perspective, you’re collaborating, you’re consulting, all of those are action, and we want you to have a bias toward action. And then, of course, the call. The corollary is distress tolerance. And so we need distress tolerance skills in order to learn to tolerate the uncertainty, and this sets the foundation for success. And I’ve had lots of podcasts where I’ve covered distress tolerance skills, so you can check those out. But we all need good stress coping skills. And in the recent podcast on stress, I covered several distress tolerance skills that you can work with.
Dr. Melissa Smith 50:10
So these are the pieces that we really want to pay attention to. So there you go, I have seven solutions to help you. So I’m just going to review those really quickly. Solution one is perspective taking solution two is clarify concern. Solution three is utilize diverse strengths. Solution four is to identify patterns and themes, solution five, create coherence among competing agendas. This is not the same as simplification. But where can we agree? Where can where do we agree we’re going to focus solution six and list Devil’s advocates and solution seven tolerate ambiguity and that’s where we really want to use those distress tolerance skills.
Dr. Melissa Smith 50:51
So I hope this podcast has been helpful for you to really understand how stress shows up in your leadership and in your teams. And you know, some very practical solutions to help you take action, so that stress doesn’t take you down. So head on over to my website to check out the show notes. For the resources for this episode and two links to other episodes that may be helpful for you. You can find that at www.drmelissasmith.com/stressandleadership so that’s all one word stress and leadership. So one more time that’s www.dr Melissa Smith comm forward slash stress and leadership. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work an love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai