Leadership Matters: Grace Under Fire

young businessman sits in meditation pose on table while colleagues shout and wave papers at him
By Quint Studer

8 minutes

How to manage yourself during stressful, busy times

There’s no question about it: Today’s workplace can be stressful. The long work hours, the endless flow of information, the competing demands on our attention—all of these factors can make us feel perpetually overwhelmed and out of control.

The conditions that lead to workplace stress are not necessarily “bad.” They’re just reality. But the best leaders learn to deal with these conditions or the problems that lead to stress in a way that keeps everyone on track.

How you behave under pressure truly defines you as a leader and sets the tone for how others manage the situation. If you create a culture where people fall to pieces when things get tough, it will be too stressful for employees (and they will likely leave), productivity will suffer—and your job will get even harder.

Difficult, busy times can put strain on relationships, but they can also forge stronger bonds if handled the right way. When your team sees you navigate them out of a tricky situation, it can be a huge credibility builder. Conversely, when they see you fall apart, it can create a trust deficit that is hard to recover from even when things settle down.

Here are a few suggestions for managing yourself with grace under stress:

Eliminate avoidable stress.

Work to create a best-odds environment for overcoming problems. Things will go wrong from time to time even in a well-run organization. You can’t control everything. However, there are lots of things you can control. Make sure you have good processes and procedures in place for eliminating avoidable headaches. For example:

  • Plan for (and avoid) future disaster by learning from mistakes and fixing the root cause.
  • Identify stress points and think critically about whom they impact. What is causing increased workloads? Use this evaluation to decide where to delegate work and identify team members who might need additional support. (Don’t lower expectations, however. This will only breed excuses and erode performance over time.)
  • Say no to non-critical requests when you or your team are stretched thin.

Learn to prioritize …

… And teach others to as well. A big to-do list should not freak you out. Everyone is busy—and they should be. Use a priority list to work in a sensible order (evaluating daily what is most important). Often, we try to close out small tasks to make room for bigger ones when what we should be doing is staying focused on the things that really matter. Just “getting things done” may feel good in the moment, but what really matters is getting the big things done.

Simplify when things get stressful.

Bring order and clear thinking to chaotic situations. Keep an eye on what’s important and what can be cut away. A good leader can make a potentially crushing workload feel manageable. By taking a cool and methodical approach, you can make a huge difference in helping others stay focused and productive and keep their stress reactions in check.

Create a culture of calm.

Be sensitive to the messages you’re sending out. Model calmness when things are chaotic. You teach your employees how to behave based on how you behave. A leaders’ actions, both positive and negative, get mirrored. And research shows that the ripple effect of negative emotions is considerably more intense than that of positive emotions. If employees see you panicking, they are likely to panic. If they see you staying calm and focused on solutions, they will mimic this behavior as well.

Also, try not to show physical signs of stress. Wringing your hands and pacing around anxiously will not make things better. In fact, it will likely make your employees worried and negatively impact their performance.

Be careful about the words you use, as well. Avoid using words like “slammed” or “overwhelmed.” There is nothing wrong with stating that you are busy, but how you talk about being busy impacts others. Just because you are stressed doesn’t mean everyone else has to be.

Don’t blow things out of proportion.

Do everything you can to keep a level head. Sometimes our tempers flare when things are stressful. Try to avoid letting little things turn into big problems. When leaders lose their cool, problems only escalate. People get upset, and their productivity plummets. Plus, explosions can cause long-term damage to a leader’s credibility.

Keep the past in its place.

Leaders can generate a lot of stress for themselves and others by rehashing mistakes and misses. Frame these mistakes as learning experiences, but don’t keep talking about them over and over again. Instead of focusing on past challenges, look for what’s going right and celebrate bright spots.

Don’t pretend to be fearless.

A common mistake leaders make is to pretend that everything is fine when it clearly isn’t. Sometimes acknowledging that a situation or negative circumstance is real, and possibly even scary, is the best way to build trust with your team and get them to invest 110% on solving the problem. This is not the same thing as getting visibly bent out of shape. You can be honest and calm at the same time.

Help others manage stress.

Busy, stressful times are when you need cooperation and engagement the most. Yet it’s during these times that tension builds, emotions run hot, and people explode or otherwise behave badly. Recognize this and put a plan into place to help people deal with frustrations and conflict in a way that won’t harm the team’s ability to perform. For example, you might proactively ask everyone to be mindful of their tone when communicating while under pressure. You might also ask others to jump in and help when they see a coworker getting overwhelmed. As a leader, you need to not only manage your own stress but help others manage theirs as well.

Master these calming tactics.

If you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed by stress, here are a few ways you can calm yourself down quickly:

  • Control your body. Don’t let it control you.
  • Walk away. Take a 20-minute break.
  • Go for a walk. Physical activity is a great stress reliever. It can help you calm your mind and get some much-needed clarity around what needs to happen next. Breaks like this are a great opportunity to plug in your headphones and listen to a quick song that might help you relax. Even better if you can get outside, even for just a moment. A little natural sunlight can make a big difference in your mood.
  • Open up your body and take a few deep breaths. Put your shoulders back, head up, and stand tall. Try to intentionally quiet your mind. This is a technique professional athletes have used for years to manage stress before a big game. Opening up the body allows for better blood flow, and deep breathing puts more oxygen in the blood and can help minimize the impact of cortisol (the stress hormone).
  • Count backward from 10. Do it twice if you have to. Shifting your focus from the problem at hand to a relatively simple task can help you come back to your work with fresh eyes. It helps your brain reset and refocus. Moving the focus away from your problem and onto an abstract thought, even one as simple as counting from 10, will also help you calm down and control your emotional response. It forces you to use a different part of the brain.

Create a best-odds plan for staying healthy.

Sleep well, eat well, stay hydrated and generally take good care of your body so you’ll be in tip-top shape mentally. This requires discipline and planning, but health and well-being are too important to leave to chance. Good habits fall to the wayside during busy times. You may be tempted to skip lunch because you’re too busy to eat, or you stay up till 1:00 a.m. working. Remind yourself that this is counterproductive. You can’t perform if you are sleep-deprived or sugar-crashing because you didn’t take time to pack a nutritious lunch and ate from the vending machine instead. If you aren’t healthy, you won’t be able to cope when stress levels kick into overdrive.

Be resilient/learn to reset.

Setbacks will happen. Leaders must be able to bounce back quickly and continue to move forward even when things appear to be falling apart. Resiliency is essential, as leaders need to have the mental wherewithal to offer support and continue to direct their teams. Being resilient comes from having good coping skills, supportive environments with a lot of psychological safety, a strong sense of optimism, grit, and the mental and physical stamina to sustain and move through stressful situations.

As with everything else, experience counts for a lot. More seasoned leaders will often be better at handling stress just because they have had so many years to learn to cope. They’ve seen what can happen when they don’t handle stress well, and that motivates change. If you are a new leader, know that this is a skill you will build just like everything else. Use these tools and tactics and know that it gets easier every day.

Quint Studer is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive and a lifelong businessman, entrepreneur and student of leadership. Quint is the founder of Vibrant Community Partners and Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida.

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