No two people respond to adversity the same way.
Some folks embrace the challenge and figure things out for themselves. Others, the majority of us, need to help from experts to help us navigate the problems we are facing related to stress and fear. One expert I have turned to is Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a leading authority on stress resilience who did a decade's worth of research work at Harvard Medical School.
Some managers may think that they do not have time to coach their people.
“The leader doesn't have time to 'not do this,’” Melnick told me in an email interview. “All the research prior to this crisis indicates that employees who feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety will be engaged with the work and have loyalty to the manager and organization.”
“Managers want to remember that the work gets done through people,” says Melnick. A manager can alleviate stress through conversation. “That will help the employee spend more time on the work. And it will make that employee so much more motivated to work for that manager."
Or, as Melnick says, "Going slow to go fast.”
Her book "Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools to Stay Calm, Confident and Productive When the Pressure's On," is a useful resource for any manager wondering how to manage his fears, let alone deal with the stress his employees are feeling. With Melnick's permission, I have pulled out some practical wisdom nuggets from a guide she adapted from her book.
Demonstrate optimism rooted in reality
When the world is coming apart, how can anyone be optimistic?
“Optimism paints a positive mental picture of the future and implies there is something that each team member can do to help adapt and achieve success," writes Melnick. "It communicates your belief in your team, activates problem-solving abilities and has even been shown to maintain healthy immune functioning."
It is critical to ground optimism in the truth; however, discomforting it may be. False promises undermine a leader's credibility.
Learn to balance your body's ON/OFF systems.
“When you are ON, adrenalin helps you problem solve and carry out all the tasks of your day,” says Melnick. “Because everything feels like a priority, we tend to use our ON system and push ourselves all day.”
Melnick writes in her guidebook: “This ON system is extremely useful for quick responses and tactical tasks, but we can make thinking mistakes like over-focusing on the problem or doing business as usual just to get it done expediently.”
Melnick advises that you need your OFF system to engage in strategic thinking and innovation. It is for this reason that executives may rush big decisions without taking time to deliberate beforehand.
“With ongoing stress, it is important to activate that OFF system whenever you can,” she says. “Taking mental breaks -- getting away from what you are doing if only for a short period of time -- is rejuvenating.”
One technique Melnick teaches is a breathing exercise. “Exhale for longer than you inhale. Breathe in for three counts, out for six counts. This kind of breathing can calm your mind quickly.” Another way to concentrate more fully is through mindfulness. Practicing it can be as simple as “slowing down your attention and focusing on the moment to moment tasks.”
Lack of control makes people stressed. Keep your people in the loop. Share information as much as you can. Melnick advises keeping directions short and to the point. And repeat directions often. When stress levels are high, people cannot absorb quantities of information, and they forget. For this reason, it’s also important to listen to your people. Empathize with their feelings of stress so they trust you and will follow your direction.
Keep your team’s spirits up
Things will go wrong. People will make mistakes. Be careful how you respond. Melnick writes: "Remind them they are doing their best under the circumstances. Encourage them to have someone who is safe to talk to about their sense of overwhelm, so they don't have to internalize the stress while putting up a tough front."
Feeling stress is a human condition. So too is resilience. Applying techniques we gain from others, coupled with our own inner resolve, will enable us to manage it more effectively and, in turn, lead more capably and humanely.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us." You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.