1: Imagine a crisis. One moment our organization is performing well. But then, something happens. Adversity strikes. Growth stalls or recedes.
As the leader, there are several ways we might react.
“Many leaders get intensely stressed,” Dr. Daniel Friedland observes in Leading Well from Within. “When individuals feel overwhelmed by a high level of stress (when their perceived demands exceed their perceived resources), [we] ‘go limbic’ and lose full access to [our] higher cortical circuits—and prefrontal cortex (PFC) in particular.”
The result? We “have trouble connecting with empathy in our relationships, thinking clearly, making decisions, and producing creative and innovative solutions,” Danny notes.
Other leaders choose to “ignore a brewing crisis and pretend that everything is okay,” Danny writes.
Or, perhaps we’ve created an organizational culture that is too “laissez-faire” and lacks “sufficient vision, strategy, decision making, oversight, accountability, and boundaries for bad behavior.”
In this scenario, a lack of leadership results in the organization not fully engaging the available collective resources.
2: In both cases—when the leader becomes intensely stressed or is too tolerant or indifferent, the organization will struggle.
“Remember, the state of a leader is socially contagious within a culture,” Danny writes. “So the leader’s experience of threat spreads as fear in cycles of reactivity throughout the organization. People hunker down in survival mode, and the culture as a whole becomes reactive.
“Without as much access to their higher cortical circuits, employees’ empathy erodes, morale plummets, energy is depleted, creativity and innovation are shut down, and customer service suffers.”
3: According to the Yerkes-Dodson law of psychology, performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress). As stress increases, we gain “full awareness, focus, and mental clarity, which is optimal for problem solving and decision making,” Danny writes.
But only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, our performance declines. “With increasing stress and anxiety at not having enough time or skill, [we] feel threatened with thoughts of potential failure and find it increasingly hard to focus and concentrate.”
On the other hand, if we feel no stress at all, we find it hard to be fully engaged and may feel apathetic, unfocused, or bored.
“There is a sweet spot—a specific level of stress—where individuals tend to feel optimally energized, focused, and engaged to function at their best,” Danny writes.
As leaders, we must cultivate the ability “to recover from the distress of stress and to leverage a healthy level of stress to cultivate growth at the edge of our capabilities,” Danny notes. This skill is “the key to optimizing our energy and navigating toward the peak of our performance curve.”
Reflection: What is my relationship with stress?
Action: Journal about it.