Improving Leadership; Reducing Stress — Oct 2022

October 25, 2022

People are fried.  The last two-and-a-half years have thrown curve ball after curve ball at us, with a potpourri of challenges: the pandemic, staffing shortages, continued supply chain issues, shifting workforce needs and work environments, inflation and emerging other economic issues, a polarized political climate, among other things. What many of us hoped would be a sprint is clearly a marathon of accelerating change and accumulating challenges.  And it’s starting to take its toll, as leaders, professionals – and all of us as people – are facing ever-growing levels of stress in our professional and daily lives.

Over time, chronic stress can lead to burnout, and burnout can lead to poor professional outcomes: “quiet quitting” (or actual quitting), decreased productivity, increased errors, poor decision making and poor judgment, among other things, each having an impact on organizational performance.  Further, stress and professional burnout can also lead to poor health outcomes: in fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, mental health issues, as well as behavioral choices (smoking, drinking, etc.) that lead to other undesirable outcomes (other medical research indicates that up to 90% of all illness and disease can be linked to stress).

According to Gallup, 83% of US workers indicate they are currently suffering from work-related stress.  And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Fortune and Gartner: 66% of US workers indicate they are currently experiencing burnout (up sharply the last couple of years); 59% feel overworked; and 76% feel overwhelmed.  US leaders and workers are stressed, causing US organizations and businesses to be stressed.

A few weeks ago, PEN hosted a panel of four leaders, each exploring the neuroscience of stress and what leaders and professionals can do to reduce stress levels and burnout.  (If you’re interested in the recording, visit here; we also hosted a webinar in August, featuring a deeper dive from one of those speakers and that recording is here).  Dr. Terry Wu, a neuroscientist who has studied the impact of stress on leadership, suggested stress is part of a process.  His assertion is that if you experience stressor(s) – whatever they are – over time, they lead to stress, which over time leads to burnout, which leads to poor outcomes – both in terms of health (fatigue, pain, disease) and professional results (productivity, poor decisions and some of the issues I list above), which in turn, creates more stressors.  It’s a continuing cycle that perpetuates (or increases) stress over time, so it’s no wonder that we have seen stress and burnout levels increase the last couple of years.

If you break the cycle, Dr. Wu’s central point is that we all can reduce stress by reducing stressors.  Professionally, if you feel you are underpaid and overworked, or if your boss micromanages you, or you feel you’re in a toxic work culture, you have stressors.  Personally, if you’re in a bad relationship, have sickness (either yourself or a loved one), or you don’t feel safe, you have stressors. To reduce stress, find and reduce your stressors.  It makes sense: as improvement professionals, we’ve been trained to identify and address the root cause of problems.

Shannon Murphy, another panelist and expert in neuroscience, claimed a similar hypothesis: to reduce stress, you first have to recognize your stress status (which she calls your “BrainState”).  The more a person can have open perception (instead of closed) and is making conscious choices (being intentional and mindful) instead of unconscious, he/she creates a higher “BrainState” – a higher sense of self-awareness with greater resilience.  The higher the self-awareness, the higher access you have to your full toolkit and the greater your ability to manage stress.  To become more adept in recognizing your BrainState, she suggests we need to be more intentional in noticing your physical, emotional, and thinking cues (see image below).  These cues will be different for different people, so recognize and document yours over time, which will help you gauge where you are in your stress levels.

Dr. Wu and Shannon’s approaches are similar: to reduce stress, study your cues to identify your stressors.  And if you notice that your BrainState cues aren’t where you want them to be, then Shannon suggests these strategies:

  • Ask yourself questions that can help you shift your state – questions like “what is the ultimate outcome I want?” or “Is there a silver lining in this situation?” or “What good can I take out of this otherwise challenging situation?”.
  • Engage short term memory to help stabilize your frontal cortex and refocus the brain – for example, count by 7’s, or imagine a peaceful image.  This will pull your brain into a more conscious state, helping you avoid the natural unconscious reaction to stress.
  • Eating something every two to four hours (something healthy, with a low glycemic index), will provide the right energy and chemical balance for your brain.
  • Laugh – laughter is “like a car wash for the brain,” as she indicates: it releases endorphins and can shift your brain state. Humor really is the best medicine.
  • Consciously engage appreciation and positive emotions.  Practicing gratitude can reduce cortisol and stress levels.

Those are five simple, evidence-based techniques to shift your BrainState and reduce your stress levels.  There are certainly other strategies that can help you reduce levels of stress: yoga, sleep, exercise, spending time on the things you like (family, friends, hobbies, volunteering, travelling), getting outside, unplugging from technology, among others.  Those are all worthwhile techniques, but Dr. Wu suggests those methods are only temporary in their effectiveness and that we need to focus on finding and removing stressors to have lasting, long-term impact on stress and burnout levels.

Which brings me to a key point: if a high percentage of stress is caused by work itself, what can leaders do to help their people reduce stress and avoid burnout? 

According to Gallup, the top five drivers of professional burnout include:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure.

I won’t ask for a show of hands on how many of these you all experienced recently, but I’m guessing the list resonates with most of us. And most of those drivers are the result of leaders themselves: poor leadership is a large source of stress for workers!  So here are some ways that leaders can create a work environment that reduces stress for your team:

Don’t transfer stress. Studies show that an effective way to reduce stress is to transfer it, and the more a leader becomes stressed, the more he/she is inclined to (unintentionally) transfer it to their teams.  To prevent this from happening, leaders shouldn’t micromanage – just provide guidance and empower your people to do their jobs.  Don’t show displacement aggression (taking out your stress on your team).  Don’t give out mandates, delegate unnecessary work to your team (that you should be doing yourself), or set unreasonable timelines.  Good leaders are sensitive to the fact that they can shift stress from themselves to their team; learn how to check yourself to guard against this tendency.

Consider the impact of your decisions. Similarly, be sensitive to how your leadership decisions may impact those on your team. Making quick, reactive decisions oftentimes has unintended consequences, creating stress and burnout for those who report to you.  To prevent this from happening, try these three techniques:

  • Write down the reasons behind your decisions – when you write things down, you slow down your thinking, engaging your rational brain.
  • Take perspective – as a leader, take perspective of your followers in your decisions, in your behavior and actions.  If you consider how your decisions will impact the lives of your followers, you’ll make decisions that have fewer unintended consequences.
  • The bigger the decision and the bigger the impact on your team, the more time you should take.  Be deliberate rather than reactive and emotional; walk away from the decision for a few hours (or days) to “sleep on it,” making sure you’re comfortable it’s the best decision for all stakeholders.

Provide social support.  We are all social creatures: when we feel connected to and supported by others, we gain a sense of safety and pleasure – which increases levels of dopamine in the brain and reduces our stress.  Remarkably, as Dr. Wu indicates, the benefits of social connection are experienced by both the giver and receiver (in this case, the leader and the worker).  With social isolation first caused by the pandemic – and with continued shifts in the work environment shifts (like hybrid work arrangements), it’s important for leaders to create ways to remove isolation and provide social support for their teams.  A few ways to do that include: having regular check-ins with your team members; conducting daily stand ups (even if they’re virtual); hosting team social events that emphasize the human component of all of our work.  Feelings of connection and belonging reduce stress.

Find similarities within your team – those things we share in common.  Dr. Wu shared that – because of our neurology and desire for safety – studies show that people follow (and are influenced by) those who are similar to themselves.  So while diversity is important, he suggests it’s also important for leaders to find and leverage similarities within their teams (such as common purpose, affinity for sports teams, hobbies, or vacation destinations).  Finding ways that we’re similar helps develop affinity, build and sustain relationships, which are necessary to establish trust and motivate action.

Smile.  Unconsciously, we mirror other people’s facial expressions: if they’re smiling, we smile; if they’re frowning, we frown.  This is an incredibly easy way to “set the tone” with your team just by modeling optimism.  However, be careful of what Dr. Wu calls…

Avoid “toxic positivity.”  Yes, being positive is healthy and generally good.  But too much positivity – especially when people (or society) is experiencing legitimate negativity – ignores the natural emotions that people need to feel.  And suppressing those emotions with fake positivity causes more stress and sets your people up for failure.  When you tell your team to just “be more positive,” you’re shifting the burden of stress to your followers and telling them “it’s your problem, not mine.” Instead, acknowledge negativity and work to give your team coping mechanisms.  Check in with your team frequently; show compassion (or try to understand their situation); consider the whole person in your teammates, not just the one you see at work.

Guard against too much empathy.  Usually, empathy is good, but Dr. Wu also suggests that empathy triggers the same emotional brain response as if you (the leader) were experiencing the pain, which can cause more stress for leaders.  So showing too much empathy toward others’ pain causes your own pain and therefore stress.  Instead, Dr. Wu suggests that leaders need to show compassion: it will lead to a more rational decision-making process, helping you avoid getting too close to others’ stressors.

Finally, there are several other simple leadership practices that not only make for more effective leaders, but work to reduce stress and burnout of your teams:

  • Set clear expectations.  People are stressed when they don’t know what’s expected of them.  Be clear, follow up for understanding, and provide constant feedback to help your team course correct as needed.
  • Try to balance workload and minimize disruptions.  Understand everyone on your team’s capacity and capability, and strive to balance workload.  Part of this is allowing (and encouraging) your team members to raise their hands when they feel stretched.
  • Focus on your employees’ strengths – not only will this leverage the competencies you have on your team, but it will also significantly reduce stress within the team (who wants to hear about their weaknesses and gaps all the time?!).
  • Provide constructive feedback – focus on behaviors and results (not characteristics and tendencies).  Employees can adjust behaviors and take action to improve results, but it only causes frustration and stress if your feedback is related to things they can’t control.
  • Be reasonable and recognize that sometimes “good enough is good enough” – strive for excellence, but don’t try to make things perfect. Setting stretch goals is good; setting unrealistic, unachievable goals only causes more stress.
  • Communicate – frequently, thoroughly.  And then do it again.  When your team lacks full knowledge of a situation, they begin to “fill in the gaps” (and oftentimes assumes the worst).  Be transparent; communicate as much as you can.
  • Support risk taking.  Reward intelligent risks; don’t punish for failure.  Allowing your team to take (calculated) chances not only allows for possible innovation, but it creates opportunities for learning, and it removes the fear of failure (another source of stress).
  • Focus on inclusion.  Diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) shouldn’t be just a statement, but reflected in an organization’s culture, systems and processes.  And leaders should embrace diversity on their teams, creating a welcoming and open work environment that allows everyone to be themselves.

The long and the short of it is this: leaders can either create or reduce stress within their teams.  Given today’s extraordinary challenges, helping your team reduce stress will promote goodwill and build relationships, which in turn will increase their engagement, their retention, and their overall performance.  And those same techniques help leaders reduce their own stress and burnout, a true win-win.

To learn (and practice) techniques to manage and reduce your own stress – as well as become better leaders in helping your team manage theirs, consider one or both of these upcoming PEN workshops:

What other insights/tips do you have regarding reducing stress and burnout?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!