As an executive coach, many of my clients seek development support when they are experiencing elevated stress levels for sustained periods of time. The presenting challenges leaders face are as varied as the leaders themselves. As we know, stress levels in the workforce are at an all-time high for leaders and employees trying to navigate the new COVID world and changing employee expectations.
Sometimes the problems leaders describe are that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to complete the tasks on their ever-growing to-do lists. For many leaders, there are too many priorities for the leadership team to tackle, however, also an unwillingness to say no to new opportunities or to reprioritize current work. Others will say their peers and employees are overly emotional or are not accountable for their work. In many cases, leaders themselves don’t know how to manage their own emotional responses when feeling stressed.
I often hear from leaders, that they prefer to keep conversations and interactions with others rational and objective, stick to the facts please, while the emotional terrain is considered out-of-bounds in the workplace. And yet, as we know by now, most behaviors and interactions in the workplace are driven by our emotions, whether we acknowledge it or not. We are by our very biology, emotional beings, and when under tremendous stress, are very emotional beings.
It is most often not about the complex circumstances of leadership that matter the most in our coaching work together. It is quite often about working with their elevated or maladaptive stress responses that is the gold in the development opportunity.
Leaders cannot be at their best when stress levels continue to escalate from medium to high, or high to highest, without ever dropping to a lower stress level. Much of how we manage stressful situations has to do with our hardwiring as human beings, how we were raised, what our family circumstances were, where we grew up, with what socio-economic stressors, and the many more unique attributes that carry us into adulthood, and our work.
For leaders to change from maladaptive stress responses to new adaptable responses, they must first see the patterns of their behaviors that reinforce the stress loops they are in. Some of the behaviors we can all relate to come with a person’s work styles and preferences, which support the emotional landscape they were raised with and continue to loop or oscillate within.
Reinforcing patters or styles come in many varieties, for example, there is the stress loop created by chronic over-functioning, where a leader does the work for their employees, when the employees fail to perform on time or up to the standards required by this leader. In these scenarios, the leader takes the work back, to re-do it, or stands over the proverbial shoulders of their employees, or creates multiple checkpoints, to insert their perspectives and to make sure the work is progressing as it should. These leaders are exhausting themselves and others, are perpetually stressed doing work for others or perfecting the work of others. In these cases, senior leaders are not working on the more strategic needs of the business.
Overly fearful or anxious leaders might find it difficult to manage the expectations of peers, managers, or customers who have divergent perspectives and expectations. The desire to please all parties involved, to over empathize, or to avoid difficult conversations, creates reinforcing stress loops. Not only are leaders and their teams exhausted from elevated emotional responses and reactivity, but the work doesn’t meet the expectations of their stakeholders.
Leaders able to see the patterns of their behaviors that elevate their own and others’ stress responses, and work with these responses to change them, are more able to shift out of the stress loops. The new actions, ways of thinking, and emotional responses they choose and practice, with the guidance of the coach, can move them out of habitual, stress responses and old patterns that elevate them.
I founded The Red Rock Consultancy for the specific purpose of working with C-level executives, senior leaders and their leadership teams as an integral leadership development resource.