In coaching leaders over the past several years, I’ve observed a common theme: feeling overpowered by rapidly changing circumstances. These men and women struggle to manage shrinking budgets, ask employees do more with less and receive negative online reviews that diminish the reputation of their organization.
When their stress becomes overwhelming — as happens from time to time for almost all leaders — they must find ways to cope with the confusion and conflicts that accompany a crisis. Coping requires the ability to maintain a mindset that enables the leader to see that it’s possible to achieve a positive outcome, even when the future is shrouded in uncertainty. To shift back into clear-headed thinking requires the ability to engage cognitive and behavioral strategies that enable effective responses.
When faced with a massive challenge, most people feel flooded by fear, which triggers the powerful primary negative emotions of anger, anxiety and depression. Their attention becomes riveted on their problems, absorbing all of their resources and energy. Concentration is difficult. Worrying replaces reflecting. Relationships become strained. Eating and sleeping patterns are disrupted.
People who are under tremendous stress can have such intense reactions that they don’t even feel like themselves anymore. Unless they learn to how to cope with the challenging situation in which they find themselves, it can be weeks or months before they’re able to return to their normal level of functioning.
Leaders are especially vulnerable. It’s difficult for them to comprehend how they could have done everything right to build their organization, only to have radical changes in circumstances bring them to the brink of disaster. The approaches they’ve used to achieve success in the past are insufficient to produce the same results in today’s world. Leaders can feel powerless if their directives don’t turn the situation around and their employees begin to flounder.
Some leaders will ratchet up their efforts to use command and control as their coping mechanism for dealing with situations that seem to be spiraling downward. These leaders have typically built their self-esteem around feeling personally responsible for having been successful in the past. The thought of failure is deeply disturbing because it would mean they were personally responsible for that result as well.
I’ve found leaders must maintain two mindsets to contend with overwhelming challenges: a collaborative solution-focus and a positive emotion-focus. Seeking solutions by becoming increasingly collaborative with employees at every level of the organization generates fresh input and insight. But to spark innovative thinking, leaders must simultaneously generate a sufficient amount of positive emotion to calm the fear-based part of the brain — their own as well as their employees.
Studies show that one component of emotion-focused coping is to generate at least three positive interactions with people for every negative encounter that occurs. Until people are above the 3:1 ratio, innovative thinking is stifled by ruminating over worst-case scenarios.
The second strategy for regulating stress-induced negative emotions comes from looking for the silver lining that occurred when people survived past stressful situations. Studies show that 70 percent to 80 percent of people feel they actually were able to grow as a result of enduring difficult experiences. In fact, many individuals say they discovered strengths and developed a level of maturity that astounded them. Reminding employees that same outcome awaits them as they face a current problem can be enormously encouraging.
Once a positive mindset has been established, effective leaders use inquiry rather than advocacy. Asking the right questions is the best strategy for finding solutions: “What would it look like if we were ultimately successful? What do you believe are the most valuable elements that need to be a part of a positive outcome? How would our stakeholders benefit?”
Imagining the possibility that the organization could prevail opens people’s mind to trying small steps every day to discover what works to move toward the positive outcome. People who’ve developed a goal-oriented mindset use proactive self-talk such as: “I’m making progress, one step at a time. I’m concentrating only on what I need to do to move forward today. Every day I try to help others to accomplish their goals as well.”
Serious challenges unsettle people’s foundation, forcing them to refresh their awareness of their values, reset their priorities, and redefine their identity in light of emerging capabilities. Learning to maintain overwhelmingly positive relationships prevents people’s minds from being overwhelmed with worry, blame or despair. Envisioning positive outcomes enables people to overcome severely stressful situations by transforming fear into energy that can be used to take action.