Leading effectively during stressful times
August 25, 2009
Leadership isn't for the faint-hearted, particularly in stressful times such as a recession. You can learn to manage your attitudes and behaviors to help you and your organization more effectively weather the storm and emerge even stronger.
Do you believe leaders can affect the stress level of those they lead? If so, what are you doing to help your team manage their stress during this recession?
The key to managing stress in difficult times can be found in your attitudes about recession and how you communicate that attitude to others.
I've never experienced a market quite like this one, and I've been in business for a long time. The events of the last few years have challenged me both mentally and emotionally. One way I've been affected is in my sleep cycle. Almost every night I wake up at 2 a.m. and stay awake for two or more hours. I call this early-morning period of wakefulness my "witching hours." When these unwanted sleep disturbances began, I would abruptly come out of a deep sleep and wrestle for hours with what couldor mighthappen if the economy didn't turn around quickly.
During these early-morning hours, my psychological training and experience were put to the test. The main thing I struggled with was how to overcome the fear of the unknown. Because I didn't want to alarm my staff or my family, I had no one to talk with about these paralyzing feelings. Intellectually I knew that millions of people were going through the same thing, but that didn't quiet the mania whirling around in my head. What did calm it was my switching from fear to faith.
You may find yourself in a similar situation. It's not unnatural for emotions to get out of balance when your livelihood is threatened, or your plans for the future are challenged, or you find yourself depleting savings to pay the monthly notes. In fact, I don't think you would be normal if you didn't experience some degree of anxiety during this recession.
I'm sure you have heard that it's not what you experience but how you deal with it that matters. Some are dealing with the current business stress by coming to work early and staying late. Others are doing their best to revise their business strategy to adapt to a changing market. I spoke with one business leader who became so overcome with anxiety that he was hospitalized. He now takes medication to help him deal with the pressure and to keep him out of the hospital. Some have hired coaches to help manage the stress of these tough times.
For many leaders it's not only about how their lives are being altered, but also about the impact the recession is having on people in their organizations. One of my coaching clients works for a company that has idled several of its manufacturing sites. He had the unpleasant duty of laying off 93 percent of his employees, including most of his managers. One of his biggest concerns was that many of them had nowhere to go. They had been working at the same job all of their careers. Part of this leader's early-morning witching hours was spent agonizing over what might happen to them. Coaching helped him learn a critical behavior and a new mental and emotional approach to overcoming the stress produced by this recession.
The good news is that there is a powerful approach to leading a work force through a recession. This approach consists of five behaviors that when practiced can change the degree of anxiety and uncertainty for you and your team. I discovered the five behaviors during one of my more frustrating witching-hours, and after that I began using that time to practice them. These five behaviors are guaranteed to alter your internal belief system and change anxiety into enthusiasm. Each one is so critical that this single article cannot do justice to all of them. Therefore, I'm going to address the first behavior here and the others in subsequent articles. The five behaviors are:
Faith is the ability to believe in and communicate to others that at the end of this recession, you are going to prevail. It's the driving force behind purpose, vision, and performance. Faith has two parts: belief in the end result and doing all you can in your present reality. These two facets are best illustrated by the story of the old farmer who was leaning against his fence when the local minister drove up. After a perfunctory greeting the minister said to the farmer, "You and the Lord have a nice place here." The old farmer responded with, "You should have seen it when the Lord had it by himself." To navigate through this recession, you are going to need faith and work.
If you have not read Good to Greatby Jim Collins, I suggest you get a copy and turn to page 85. On this page Collins describes the Stockdale Paradox. It's named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking U.S. military prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Collins describes going to lunch with Stockdale to understand how he managed eight years of repeated torture during his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton. Stockdale said, "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life."
Collins also asked Stockdale about those who didn't make it. "The optimists, they were the ones who said "we're going to be out by Christmas.' And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, "We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart."
Stockdale went on to say, "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
These two complementary ideas are the key you must have to survive and thrive during a recession. You must not ignore the brutal facts of your present reality, but you must also maintain faith that you are going to prevail in the end.
Most people are short on faith and long on reality, especially if they listen to and believe the information that comes across the news services. I believe listening to the negative opinion of others establishes a false reality about a present situation. All the news I've heard or read recently leaves out Stockdale's critical point: the faith that you will prevail in the end. I recommend staying away from anything or anyone that leaves you discouraged or despondent.
Two emotional responses are possible when you face the brutal facts. The first response is feeling overwhelmed, which happens if you don't include prevailing faith first. Focusing on the facts without faith creates anxiety.
The second emotional response is enthusiasm, which comes as a result of exercising your faith first and then dealing with the brutal facts. Focus on faith, include facts, and create enthusiasm.
What can you do differently? I have one suggestion for you to practice over the next week. During your early morning witching hours—or if you don't wake up at 2 a.m., pick another time during the day—I want you to consciously shift your attention away from the present worry to the fact that you are going to prevail in the end. What does that look like and feel like to you? Here are some questions to guide you through the process: How will my business and life be different after this is over? What good things are going to come out of this recession? How will I be different as a leader? What things will I do differently?
Faith in the end game is an interesting process. The bigger your vision of what it looks like to prevail in the end, the stronger your emotional response to it and the easier it will be to deal with the present facts of your reality. The vision actually becomes the object of your faith. The bigger the object, the less faith you will need. Flying in an airplane is a great example of this. The bigger the plane (the object), the more comfortable and confident I am flying in it, therefore, the less faith I need. The smaller the plane, the less comfortable and confident I am, so I need more faith.
For example, when I was in the Air Force, I felt much more comfortable flying in a KC-135 four-engine aircraft than I did flying with my buddy in his Cessna 152 two-seater.
Make your vision of prevailing in the end huge. I'm sure when Admiral Stockdale was envisioning how he would prevail in the end that his vision was unbelievably big. I suggest you get your faith wrapped around a big vision of the end game.
I still wake up at my witching hour; however, my thoughts and feelings are now focused on the faith that I will prevail in the end of this recession. It creates the enthusiasm I need to develop new plans and seek new ventures and opportunities.
I challenge you to imagine what you and your company will be like as you communicate the faith that you are going to prevail in the end? An even greater challenge is to imagine how the attitude and energy in this recession would be different if hundreds of leaders would focus on the faith that they are going to prevail in the end.