In our previous blog we wrote, leaders can help themselves and others who collaborate with them, by breaking free of old stress patterns, belief systems, and emotional reactivity. With what we know about the neuroplasticity of the mind, leaders can affect change by practicing new ways of perceiving themselves and their situations, developing alternate mindsets, and working with their emotional responses.
The following five practices, along with the positive reinforcement and support from an executive coach and others, can help leaders to have positive gains and to experience meaningful change.
The first practice is to increase Awareness of our behaviors and old stress-reinforcing patterns. The Awareness practice, a building block for other practices, increases our ability to see our automatic responses, by consciously moving to more fluid states of awareness about our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The practice of increasing awareness, over time, allows us to see the relationship between our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Bob, a new CEO in a healthcare organization, was managing significant levels of stress as he made the transition into his new role. Bob’s organization was straining to meet patient and community needs, to maintain essential resources, and to support practitioners and administrators.
His initial practice to increase self-awareness, was to notice what happened in his body when he was stressed, and to be more aware of triggering situations or interactions that elevated stress levels. In time, he was able to anticipate a stress reaction, and a potential less optimal response, by the contracting muscles in his neck, shoulders, and back. This awareness became the gateway to the next practice.
The second practice is to Explore situations or interactions that elevate our stress levels, and to be curious about our emotional reactivity. Bob Explored his assumptions and perceptions about what was happening in stressful times, and how he was holding beliefs that did not serve his leadership. As a former doctor, Bob would leap into action in situations he deemed urgent, taking on the work himself or diving into the details, instead of letting his capable team handle the crisis. When he explored two default preferences; getting things done in the right way, and over-empathizing with his staff, he realized he should slow down to think through preferred responses and potential decisions.
The third practice, building upon the other two, is to Interrupt past belief systems, preferred approaches, and emotional reactivity in high-stress situations. A critical practice to behavior change, Bob returned to his embodied awareness, by stopping what he was doing, taking deep breaths, getting up from the computer, or taking a short walk before deciding or responding. Sometimes the Interrupt practice was to sit on an email overnight and edit it in the morning for emotional tone and potential assumptions. Sometimes it was allowing time to process by saying, “let me think about this and we can have a deeper conversation.”
The Interrupt practice elevated his thinking, helped to broaden perspectives, and remain calm in critical moments. In stressful situations, Bob learned that this practice enabled him to consider the perspectives of others, make better decisions, and ask more powerful questions.
The fourth practice is to Observe ourselves trying new behaviors, different mental models, or more effective emotional responses. Bob noticed that fear and anxiety (especially under stress) were often driving negative or less productive responses.
When he could see that fear was appropriate, honoring the safety needs of patients, and when anxiety was warranted, wanting to get clear about how to solve difficult issues, he could work with the valuable information from these two emotions, while tempering his reactivity. Once he was able to observe himself more objectively, he was able to monitor feelings and shift the expression of them for more positive interactions and balanced decisions.
The fifth practice, building upon the previous four, is to Undo or change our automatic reactions and behaviors, by exchanging them with new, more conscious, and effective choices. Over time, Bob substituted new behaviors, mindsets, and narratives, while working with his emotions when stressed, so his actions and words were more aligned with his values of curiosity, openness, equanimity, and respect.
Leaders can transform the ways they lead their organizations and themselves, especially in times of stress. The continuous and reinforcing practices of Awareness, Exploration, Interruption, Observation, and Undoing allowed a new CEO to create more effective patterns of behavior. Not only did he feel better, but he had more positive energy, and developed greater resilience to lead the organization, in normal times, and in the most unusual times of a global pandemic.
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.
We have known for some time that the conditions for leadership have changed in our volatile, uncertain, constantly changing, and ambiguous (so called VUCA) world. Add to these conditions, the huge pressures of a global pandemic, and we can safely say that developing emotional intelligence skills as a leader is more important than as ever, in a world that is spinning out of control on so many levels.
Defined as an essential capability for leadership success, emotional intelligence (EI) is the capacity to recognize our own emotions and those of others, the ability to regulate our emotions, and effectively manage relationships with others (Daniel Goleman). Goleman’s research shows that leaders with higher EI have double the impact on business performance and higher levels of performance themselves. In fact, 67% of competencies essential for high performance are related to EI.
The real test of our emotional intelligence capabilities is when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. The leaders I work with, as an executive coach, say they have never felt more stressed in the workplace than at this time, with far greater unpredictability and tidal waves of continuous change. The leadership capabilities of being aware of one’s emotions and then being able to collaborate with them productively, under extreme conditions, is one of the constants in my coaching practice. This work with leaders has increased exponentially over the past 24 months.
Two years into a seismic global shift, leaders are managing unpredictable business conditions while providing support for employees who, like the leaders themselves, are experiencing intense feelings of anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety.
The practice of emotional intelligence is sometimes the only support tool available to a leader while navigating relentless stress levels on the job. I am hearing from my clients, that the world they work in right now has not slowed down or somehow ordered itself as we move from a global pandemic to an endemic with Covid-19.
Many leaders I work with are practicing and growing their emotional intelligence capabilities that include:
A senior leader that I work with, and will refer to her as Maria for anonymity, has been on the front lines in the healthcare delivery system for the past two years. Working with her own stress levels and a feeling of burn-out, Maria is managing her fear and anxiety when triggered in certain high stakes situations. “I manage my emotions differently, by calming myself before responding to a coworker who was in a high stress loop herself.”
Maria is becoming more adept at recognizing her emotional patterns and unconscious reactive responses. As a result, she is more able to calm herself, sit back from the situation for a moment, before choosing to ask a more helpful or strategic question. Maria recognized that when she reacts or tries to fix the situation, she inadvertently elevates the stressful emotions of others in the room. “I watched myself calm down, and even more miraculously, I watched the other person calm down and find a way forward that was her own idea.”
Her commitment to work with her emotions, that like all of us, can hijack her in high stress situations, enabled Maria to see her strongly held assumptions about what might be going on. Once she was able to do both practices, she changed the outcome for the better for everyone involved. The development of emotional intelligence competencies in leaders, especially when under stress, can foster inner resilience when the many challenges at work and in life feel insurmountable.
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.