I’ve seen many business leaders and team members succumb to the pressures of stress as they try relentlessly to achieve their targets. They push to the limits and then crack. That doesn’t do anyone any good, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Placing your teams under intense stress won’t magically result in high performance, and it could have negative impacts. However, getting things done to a tight deadline is often necessary, so it’s about getting the balance right. What is interesting is that well-managed stress can actually increase the performance of those it affects, enabling high performing teams to better achieve their targets. As a leader, it’s about knowing how to best create this balance.
An interesting body of research I have been reading shows that stress, if managed well, has the ability to increase the performance of those it affects, as well, interestingly, as increasing life expectancy. This is in contrast to the established view that all stress in the workplace is negative. Going back to basics, the stress reaction is a result of being placed in a difficult or dangerous situation. It’s the “fight or flight” response in action, preparing the body and mind to be at their peak performance to deal with whatever is threatening. Physiological changes take place in the body to prime us to be at our best, putting our body and mind into top form. That should result in top performance if harnessed properly. The problem though is that we often perceive the stress reaction as a negative. It worries us, despite our physiology chemically changing to handle it well. The important concept here for leaders is to be able to recognise how to harness the body’s preparation to stress, to understand their own pressure points and those of their team and to be able to manage through this in the most effective way. If viewed with a positive attitude, the right level of pressure is very constructive to a team.
Recognise the pressure points
Different people have different tolerance levels and their ability to perform well under pressure will vary. Some of us thrive under pressure and deliver outstanding performance when we are part of mutually supportive high performing team. And some of us don’t.
Therefore, the starting point is to become aware of what your own tolerance to stress is – after all, you’ll do yourself and your team no favours if you are the first person to crack. You must also train yourself to be able to identify the same pressure points in your team members. They won’t necessarily tell you or even know where their limits are. So leaders must learn to recognise the circumstances under which each member of their team may become negatively stressed, and have the foresight to react and intervene, before the pressure stops being constructive and starts impacting negatively on performance. Equally, your team must know that they can call on you for support, and the support of others, when meeting work challenges.
Change how you think about stress
It’s important to remember too that the majority of stress is subjective and very much under our control. We might not be able to change the circumstances we are in, but we can control the way we perceive those circumstances and react to them. If we think of stress in a negative context, then it becomes self-fulfilling and proves to be harmful. By rethinking your approach to stress, seeing it for what it is as a means of preparing yourself mentally and physically for a challenge, you can impact how effectively you deal with it. Try to think of your stress response as helpful to your performance at work, rather than harmful. Research shows that those who see stress in a positive light, see their body actually react differently to those who see it negatively. For example, the heart rate in both groups will increase, but our blood vessels dilate when we see stress as positive, allowing more oxygen to our muscles and brain. However, they constrict if we see the stress as a problem, cutting off the very fuel we need to function properly. So if you can change how you think about stress, biological changes will make you less anxious, less stressed out and more confident. As a leader, it is your job to help your teams get to this point. And if you have this mindset, it is far easier to instil the same way of thinking in your team.
A degree of stress in our work is a fact of life, but we can change the way we recognise it, think of it and act on it, in order to get the most out of ourselves and our teams. So next time you are putting together a team for a project, think about how you can positively position the pressure that team will be under from day one. That way you’ll improve your chances of success and leave your team members with a few useful tips that hopefully make their own lives better.
This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Alistair Cox is the Chief Executive of Hays plc.
Image: A trader reacts after the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange on November 5, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.