Leading under stress

If as a leader of the pack you want to lead others to maximum performance with fun, then you have to withstand stress. You also have to lead safely and well under time pressure and emotional stress.

Stress at work is one of the biggest challenges of the modern working world. The job stress index of Health Promotion Switzerland shows that one in four workers in the workplace is stressed and feels exhausted. And another 47% of the workforce is in the sensitive area, where the available resources are just enough for the workload.

A study done by the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that particularly poor leadership places employees under severe stress. Too tight controls and micromanagement increase the pressure.

What is stress? Negative stress is physical and psychological stress that is perceived as unpleasant. Stress manifests itself e.g. in feeling that you do not have enough time for the important tasks to perform them as well as you think they require. Under stress, we think less clearly and fall back into old patterns of behavior and emotional reaction rather than acting objectively.

Under time pressure or information overflow stress hormones are released in the organism. The body prepares to either fight or flee. This has consequences for the leadership work. The attention span narrows. Things that sting your eyes are not visible anymore. You can not remember the same amount of information anymore.

One of the causes of rising stress is our so-called VUCA world, a world that is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Over the past 20 years, the number of decisions a leader has to take each day has quadrupled. And the amount of information available has skyrocketed.

Good task and employee-oriented leadership prevents stress. Clear goals, a clear sense of purpose and tangible appreciation reduce stress and increase motivation.

To achieve this as a Leitwolf, here are my 4 best tips for you to lead under stress:

1. Focus

Decide what you do not do. Let less important things go. Steve Jobs once said, “We at Apple are as proud of the things we do as we are of things we do not do.” Decide what you do not do. Then decide what exactly you are doing. Ask yourself and others what is most important to your desired outcome and focus on it. Let the other things go. Decide clearly and quickly and communicate clearly. If you have a lot of employees, better not dive yourself and do the work yourself. Better to delegate under stress. Especially under stress, your team needs you as the lead wolf.

So: Focus.

2. Mindfulness and energy

Particularly under stress, be present, be 100% attentive, be mindful of others and yourself. Calm down yourself and others. For this you need energy, physical and emotional energy. Make sure you have enough good sleep and relaxation. Drink enough water. Avoid continuous stress and take breaks. Plan time reserves. And take responsibility for yourself and your health. If you do all these things under normal stress, then you have more energy reserves for stress management.

So: Be careful and create energy reserves.

3. Break, breathe, ask

When you feel you are taking more and more of a problem, your stress level rises. In our perception, the problem gets bigger and bigger and finally occupies our entire attention completely. We hardly see a way out. We barely act, we only react.

For example, as a young marketing assistant, when I ran a project important to my consumer goods brand, there were difficulties with the stability of the pallets. I received an email from our logistics department talking about insecure pallet stability and possible delays in start of shipments. I was in stress and all kinds of movies were going on in my in my inner mind, from pallets falling into pushchairs in a hypermarket to my personal responsibility for late introduction and lost sales. I replied rather directly and certainly a little bit indignantly. One second after pressing the send button for my email answer, I felt relief. But then I began having doubts and finally there were reactions coming in from my colleagues. I had just passed on my stress and reacted wrongly, emotionally, I overreacted.

Much better than reacting would have been to act calmly. To do that, I developed a 3-step tool – break, breathe, ask. If a problem is so big that it causes stress, then it almost takes us entirely. Then it helps to distance oneself, to take a step back. Although it is still largely unchanged, the problem now seems smaller and more soluble because we can see other things than just the problem. Also time can help. If possible, do not react immediately, but with a little bit of a time delay.

Then breathe. When we breathe deeply a few times, oxygen enters our brain, we can think more clearly and our heart rate drops. We will be a little quieter.

Finally ask. Instead of reacting under stress and responding to pressure with back pressure, it is much more effective to ask than to answer.

So: Break, breath, ask.

4. Routines and training

In order to be able to do good leadership despite time constraints, training is the main way to help. Stress hinders thinking, but experiences can still be called up well. Fast and reliable are only behaviors that have been practiced under stress. Therefore, you should trust as much as possible in your experience particularly in stressful situations.

Example: The other day in front of an embassy, I saw many dozen people with wishes and requests for visa and admission. In front of the entrance there was a man who guided the crowds and despite many stressed-out people and pressure from the outside, he seemed completely calm and relaxed. Fast and at the same time friendly, he managed to get his customers to the right switch. What did he do? He openly listened to each individual, smiled and asked for their request. Then he gave clear instructions and answers.

After a while I went and complimented the man for his very good work, his speed and the friendly calm he radiated. When I asked him how he did that, he replied, “Routine and training, we train this regularly.”

So what can you leave out? What is the most important thing? How can you quickly decide and implement the most important things? How can you develop and train good routines?

Summarized my 4 best tips for you for leading under stress:

1. Focus
2. Mindfulness and energy
3. Distance, breathing, questions
4. Routines and training

Thank you for your attention,
Your Stefan Homeister

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