Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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5 Tips to Managing Stress and Teams During a Crisis


The urgency of a crisis and sustained stress over time can overwhelm people to the point where their survival instincts kick in and they instinctively move to become more protective of themselves and their families.  This often appears to other as a lack of focus, a lack of motivation, and a lack of interest in work and other activities.  In other words, they basically stop being fully functional.

During normal situations, new leaders are often surprised at the constant demands and daily crises they face. There are immediate fires to extinguish, and important decisions that need attention now.  During an enhanced and prolonged crisis, like this global pandemic, the stress level is significantly increased.

Senior and experienced leaders make managing the stress that comes with repeated crises look manageable. This is partly because they are expected to respond calmly and strategically. Their employees, stakeholders, and customers are relying on them, so senior leaders rise to the challenge.  Another reason seasoned leaders manage well through a crisis is that they have experienced past emergencies, which taught them how to react.

This is why the military practices drills and exercises over and over.  This is why pilots practice emergency scenarios in simulators over and over.  We practice until we respond the right way.

How can the rest of us remain calm, react appropriately, and help others during times of high stress, during crises, or throughout an emergency?

Understand That The Crisis Happened

Stress and crises happen every day.  Small amounts of stress are good, and 90 percent of people tested well for managing stress. Prolonged bouts of constant stress, however, can be harmful and lead to health problems.

How do high-profile people working in pressure cooker jobs manage stress?

What causes leaders to get overwhelmed in the first place?

For some, it’s lack of information or frustration over not being able to move or take action during the decision-making process. Stress for some occurs when events are completely out of their control, like when sudden negative press drives a stock price down, or when an employee in one store makes a bad decision that leads to a nation-wide safety stand down, or when employees are not sure when the current Corona virus crisis is going to end.

What Does Our Body Do With Stress?

When we’re stressed, our body releases cortisol, as most people know.  Heart rates elevate and we receive adrenaline so we can think clearly, process information from multiple angles, and work through problems. This kind of stress can be healthy, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Prolonged bouts of stress, however, can be negative, leading to sustained elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, and anxiety as the “fight or flight” mechanism can’t be turned off.  Chronic stress can disrupt sleep, suppress the immune system, and impair digestion.  During this current crisis, leaders and managers need to understand that there are physical factors that may be contributing to their employees’ inability to fully function.

5 Strategies to Lead Through Stressful Situations

To help address stress, successful leaders:

1. Envision the Solution

Part of a leader’s job is to help people see past the current situation and help others envision the positive, new reality.

Some leaders decrease stress by pushing people to see solutions during a crisis. This worked for Indra Nooyi, Pepsi Co.’s former CEO. Nooyi trained  her leadership teams to view problems as opportunities.  This can be helpful for teams who need a vision and a series of goals.

2. Face the Problem

Other leaders confront the issues directly and immediately, so it doesn’t become a prolonged problem. If you’ve ever taken a business coaching seminar or trained as an athlete, then you know that to stop feeling overwhelmed, it helps to visualize the solution or winning the race.  Focus on the outcome, and imagine what it feels like to have that solution already working.

That approach works for Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. He identifies issues and deals with them right away instead of delaying decisions.  Proactive leaders make decisions quickly so that others can take action.

Sometimes this appears callous or rushed, but it is often the right action.  Leaders need to understand that their people may not be able to see the decision as being correct at the time, and some employees may be resentful in the short-run.  Right now, some leaders had to make the difficult decision to furlough workers, close down factories, and shut down businesses.  These are tough decisions, and often employees do not realize the complexities involved.  Leaders can facilitate understanding by over communicating the message, and reiterating both the problem and the path forward.

3. Walk Away the Issue

To maintain productivity, some business leaders believe in walking breaks, where they step out of their environment to get away from the office atmosphere. Because they know business strategy depends on them being alert and focused, they get a breath of air and take a quick walk to stimulate blood flow and decrease cortisol. This allows them to regroup and refocus to find the solutions they need.

4. Put Your Mask on First

Health insurance changes allow for more wellness care, so if you or your team is suffering from chronic stress, consider asking for professional help.  The American Psychology Association (APA) states that chronic stress can be overwhelming and debilitating.  Some stress may be compounded by other medical issues.   Leaders know they have to take care of themselves so they can take care of others.

5. Protect Your Sleep

In the military we often had to work long hours with changing schedules due to watch rotations.  Yes, we can function during short-term emergencies on a few hours of sleep, but constant sleep interruption is unhealthy.  People who are regularly deprived of sleep make poorer decisions and work at a slower pace.

Most of us really need between 6-8 hours of sleep.  On a cellular level, we need sleep to recharge.  Schedule your sleep like any other important activity.

No matter what our jobs are, some stress is okay. It’s how we manage it that can help us get to the next level. While we can’t stop every crisis from happening, we can control how we react to it.


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