Although we know stress is not technically good for us, most of us can’t help but feel proud of our ability to handle large volumes of work and manage stressful situations effectively. This is especially true for high achievers!
Our culture even prizes the notion of being able to handle highly-stressful work settings, treating it like a desirable work skill.
But while some stress can drive excitement, engagement, and innovation on work teams, there’s a line that, when crossed, transforms creative engagement into self-protective survival strategies. These negative behavior patterns cause misunderstanding, emotional reactions, and erosion of trust. In fact, they’re so damaging to teams that they undermine any gains that may have been made while the team was flourishing.
Where is that line? What starts the erosion? And is there a way to optimize the creative energy that comes from positive stress without crossing that line and eroding your team’s ability to work productively together?
As is often the case, self-awareness is key!
Here’s a good way to gain some awareness on where your line is, and what happens when you cross it. Think of the stress you have been experiencing over the last month, and let’s examine your behavior:
- Write a short list of recent times when you’ve felt overwhelmed, frustrated, pressured, or otherwise overly stressed about work.
- Once you have your list, reflect on how you think, feel, and behave in those situations. Do you run around with your head cut off trying to get things done as fast as possible? Do you shut down and shut people out so you can think? Do you get sharp or feel impatient when interacting with your team? Do you agree to things you don’t want to agree with – just to make everyone happy?
- Compare these behaviors to times you feel confident, focused, and engaged. How do you interact with others on your team then? And what is the difference?
People around you never know exactly what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling inside. But they will always pick up on your energy and react to your behavior, usually making up their own stories about what it means.
When you feel overly stressed, nothing you put out, energetically or behaviorally, has a positive impact. This is a key truth for us to recognize, especially as leaders.
Here are some examples of stress-induced behavior patterns and their impacts:
A. Fast-Paced and Frenetic: Some people thrive on the adrenaline that comes from being busy. They run around getting things done quickly and enjoying the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. That’s a good use of adrenaline!
But when things get overly (or chronically) busy, that adrenaline reaches a peak, and has them in rapid multi-tasking mode with no time for deep thought or focus.
The affect on others varies – but can include:
- The frenetic energy that comes from repeatedly running around and quickly doing tasks creates a chaotic noise around you. That “noise” can cause anxiety to anyone who can see or hear you. This is especially harmful to those who are trying to concentrate or make thoughtful decisions.
- When you interact with others, they will pick up on your impatience, and may feel that you don’t have time for them. The people you manage won’t feel that you care enough about them to take the time to truly hear and understand them. At some point, they’ll start looking elsewhere for the mentoring they crave.
- Others, noting that you don’t seem to ever have time, might simply choose not to ‘waste’ your time by updating you or fully explaining their perspective on things. This leaves you with less information and may limit your ability to make good decisions.
- You will make mistakes. Some of them will seem minor and easy to correct, but the people around you will notice and learn that they can’t trust you to get things right the first time.
- You will not take enough time to think things through, which shows you as a tactical ‘doer’ instead of a strategic ‘thinker.’ If you are in a position that requires strategic thinking, you will lose credibility. If you’re wondering why you are being overlooked for promotions – it could be that people don’t see you as strategic enough.
B. Shutting Out and Shutting Down: Some people need quiet time to focus and get things done, and when the to do list gets too long they hide away and shut the door, resenting interruptions. But when they have a team who needs their support, or peers or customers waiting on them for answers, the frustration outside the walls can reach a boiling point.
Again the affect on others varies, but typically you will find:
- People who are waiting on you for answers and haven’t heard back, begin to believe that you don’t care, or that you are not working on what they need at all.
- Sensing your irritation at being bothered, people become reticent to come talk to you about issues, however important, and you miss out on information that could be critical to making decisions.
- People on your team and doing related work often waste time doing work that is no longer useful or relevant, because they never heard from you about small changes in your thinking or work that affect what they are doing.
- You don’t hear the conversations that are happening in the public areas and miss out on changes in what other people are thinking or doing that affect your work. This lack of updated information might lead you to have to redo a lot of work that has become no longer useful or relevant, due to changes.
- Projects get delayed for days, weeks, or months, because people are waiting to hear from you and don’t know what things they can and cannot move forward on that are related to your work.
C. Irate and Impatient: Some people stay clear and focused on the goal at all times, and when they get overly stressed they start wanting to punch down all the obstacles that are slowing things down. They get more and more irritated with what seem like ridiculous delays, and their impatience shows in their words and tone of voice. While they feel like they’re forging a way forward and clearing away the muck, others around them can be outraged to the point where they stage a rebellion – and then everything stops.
Here’s what’s really happening:
- Your impatience comes through in your energy, and that exasperated energy affects others by making them feel judged, pressured, and diminished. They cower around you and avoid you if they can.
- When you speak, your sharp, impatient tone is heard by others as rude, unprofessional, and often downright mean. They begin to see you as a villain, who doesn’t care about the people on the team or maintaining a positive environment for growth and teamwork. Once you get characterized as the villain, they feel justified in sabotaging your efforts – which creates more obstacles instead of less.
- People don’t want to be ‘yelled at’, so they avoid you at all costs. That means you don’t get information on what they are doing or how they are doing it. If you are the boss, you miss out on opportunities to correct mistakes before they become problems. If you are on a project team you may notice you are left out of team meetings – and this slows you down even more since you don’t know what’s going on.
- Since your impatience can come through as judgmental or critical, people don’t want to report to you or work with you. You aren’t seen as a team player, and may even be characterized in the office as a bully. Often that means your ideas, however brilliant, get rejected, just because people don’t want someone like you to be right or be the leader.
D. People Pleasing: Some people can’t stand conflict and do whatever they can to keep the peace. In good times and bad, they can be the best listeners! Listeners can do wonders to bring positivity to the team environment. However, under stress, their anxiety takes the form of over-accommodation. They agree to do things just to keep the peace, but not because they can actually handle them. They don’t speak up when they have a dissenting opinion because they don’t feel it’s worth the conflict. They don’t bring things up that bother them, because they don’t want to add more fuel to the fire. But what they don’t realize is their very efforts to smooth things over are causing a more sinister, invisible form of conflict.
If you are an ‘accommodator’ here’s how your kindness can actually damage the team:
- Since people view you as over-accommodating, they don’t trust your words. Your accommodating energy can be annoying to people who really want to know what you think and can’t trust you to tell the truth. The very relationships you want to build end up eroding.
- When you don’t weigh in, people may believe that you don’t think deeply or care much about important issues in the organization. This weakens your personal brand, and also causes others to make poor decisions because they don’t have the benefit of your perspective.
- If you are a leader, you are likely not dealing with issues your team is struggling with, because you are avoiding giving them feedback. This causes people who are not being effective to continue performing at a level far lower than their potential, simply because they don’t know what they are doing wrong or how to change it.
- When you agree to things you can’t do, at some point you’ll have to admit you can’t do them, and you’ll deal with the backlash of making promises and not delivering on them.
- Most of all, you’ll feel drained and depleted by all the extra work you are taking on behind the scenes to keep everyone happy. People won’t see that you are doing this work, and you will feel overworked and under-appreciated.
Owning your ‘Stress Behavior Pattern’ is the Key to Turning things Around
Regardless of how you behave when you are under too much stress – it hurts those around you. By acknowledging your Stress Behavior Pattern, and taking responsibility for the impact of your behavior, you may find it easier to give yourself permission to set stronger boundaries, take better care of yourself, and get your needs met.
So, how do you turn things around?
The easiest way to turn things around is to manage or lower your stress. Most of us feel like the stress we are under is caused by circumstances outside our control – our work environment, other people’s expectations, obligations, etc.
So the first step is to figure out how much influence you have over your own stress. It might surprise you to find that you have more than you think.
Here are some places you can start:
- Take a quick ‘stressor’ inventory: Then look at what you can control, or can influence, versus what you can only respond to. If you’d like you can utilize the Aspire Overwhelm Tool to get the clarity you need. Getting everything that stresses you out in one place, and then getting clear on what you can and can’t control has an amazing power to it! People find that going through this exercise periodically can provide a sense of calm and control in as little as 10 minutes.
- Get more sleep: Research shows that people who go more than 3 days in a row with less than 8 hours of sleep become far less effective without realizing it. Any productivity gains you would have gotten from the extra time you spent awake and working are erased by the poorer functioning of your brain.
- Get enough exercise: Besides the obvious physical benefits, exercise slows down the process of memory loss and helps you think more clearly. It also pumps up your body’s own ‘feel good’ endorphins, making challenges seem less daunting.
- Learn how to set time boundaries: Instead of automatically agreeing to do something just because you have space in your calendar, always answer a request for your time with, “That sounds good, but let me double check and get back to you tomorrow (or even in a few minutes).” This extra time before you respond time gives you a chance to evaluate whether or not you can actually do something. And equally important, whether you want to do it! This practice protects you from taking on things you’ll regret later.
- Carve out focus time, without becoming unresponsive: Try to find a time period every day, or every week that is just yours to focus with no electronics or interruptions. I try to get the leaders I coach to aim for 2 hours per work day. You can increase or decrease depending on your situation. A full hour before your focus time, go into what I can “hyper-responsive” mode, checking in with people to see if they need anything from you for the next few hours and let them know you will be unavailable until X time, as if you were in a meeting. You can even write it in your calendar as a meeting – nobody needs to know it’s a meeting with yourself. Disappear for your focus time if people are trained to walk into your office. Or close your door, turn away from the door, and put on big, obvious headphones that shut out noise. You can even put a sign on the door that says you’ll be available at X time to answer any questions or handle any issues. As soon as your focus time is over, open your door, take off the headphones, and go back into “hyper-responsive mode” so you are immediately addressing any issues that came up while you were in your “meeting”. Turn this into a pattern if you can. You’ll be surprised at how quickly those around you will get used to interacting with you only before or after your focus time, and not attempt to interrupt you during.
- Develop an Awareness of your Stress Triggers: We all have an automatic way of behaving when we are feeling overly stressed that feels so natural we don’t notice that anything is wrong. We all have these blind spots, but the most effective leaders do the work they need to do to raise their self-awareness, catch themselves in this automatic behavior, and take responsibility for the impact it has on others.
Long-term and powerful results might require work with a coach, to consciously produce lasting change. We have a great program at Aspire, and it’s well worth the time and energy. My experience as a coach shows that this investment pays off in saved time, by avoiding costly mistakes, and in preserving and building more productive work relationships.
If you suspect that you might have one of the behavior patterns above and would like to discuss it, please don’t hesitate to reach out – I’d love to talk with you!