No one enjoys stress. Managers of distressed teams scramble to lead their worn-out employees and struggle to keep their companies productive.
Not all stress is bad, though. Eustress, unlike distress, describes psychological discomfort that’s beneficial to the person dealing with it. According to Alia and Thomas Crum on Harvard Business Review, people who learn to deal with stress in a positive way are better equipped to handle challenges and avoid burnout.
“Stress is a natural part of life,” says Curt Cronin, a former Navy SEAL and the co-founder of Ridgeline Partners. “If we run from it, we can’t learn from it. But, if we embrace it, we emerge from the experience stronger and more prepared to tackle tougher challenges in the future.”
Leaders can help their teams avoid burnout and stay productive, but to do so, they first need to change their own ideas about how stress works.
The Good Kind of Stress
In terms of evolution, stress is the state the body enters when it feels a looming threat. It is a big part of the fight-or-flight response, which inspires people either to run from problems or to tackle them aggressively.
A little stress can motivate someone to meet the challenges of the day and work harder to reach important goals. Too much stress, however, turns positive motivation into negative reactions. In fact, excessive stress can cause illnesses, negatively affect relationships and hamper productivity.
Unfortunately, leaders cannot always control the amount of stress their teams encounter. Tight deadlines, client demands and budgetary concerns can all turn normal days into panicked situations. Rather than attempt to influence factors outside their control, leaders should learn to view stressful situations as challenges they’re ready to face—and encourage their teams to do the same.
Stress as a Motivational Tool
Leaders can follow these best practices to transform stress from an imposing obstacle into a powerful weapon:
1. Identify the stress factors.
Research from a team of neuroscientists found that simply acknowledging a stressful situation can shift the brain from a panicked state to a proactive one. The stress won’t leave on its own. Rather than hide from it, name it and face it head on to limit its power.
Delaying the response to stress makes it easier to handle. When someone delivers bad news, don’t let it create a cloud that looms over the whole day. Set a time to plan a response to the issue and handle the tasks already on the calendar so you can return to the problem later, ready to solve it. If the problem requires immediate action, take a minute to sit quietly and plan a response rather than barge in without an agenda.
2. Break the stress into smaller pieces.
Big problems create big stress. Rather than attack big stressors directly, break them down into smaller components and delegate responsibility for each component to a different person. Communicate the entire issue to team members so they understand the context of their work.
This approach serves two purposes. First, it increases engagement by showing employees the value of their work to the whole. Second, it reduces the individual stress felt by each team member as every person works on a specific task less scary than the sum of the parts. Managers can reduce their own stress levels by tracking the contribution of each component to the solution, rather than the immensity of the problem.
3. Translate vague stress into definite facts.
The anxiety of stress is directionless. In a stressful environment, people feel the cloud of stress on top of all their work—unless they isolate that stress by tying it to specific, achievable actions.
Reduce the bandwidth of the stress effect by connecting the stressful feeling to concrete deadlines. Research from the University of Rochester found that students who viewed their pre-test jitters as a positive motivating factor performed better than students who did not reframe their stressful feelings. When team members complete the task associated with the stress, they free themselves from the burden of the feeling and gain a sense of accomplishment in the process.
Stress at work is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. By following these tips and reframing stress as a motivating factor, leaders can help their teams stay focused and accomplish more—no matter how big the task.
Originally published in Success Magazine on 11/29/18.