The image of the cranky, stressed leader is a common trope in comedy and drama. These leaders, overwhelmed by heavy demands on and off the job, spread their bad tempers like a plague. Research by Lars Glasø and Ståle Einarsen shows that employees tend to reflect the emotions of their leaders, but in the case of negative emotional states, such as depression, employee feelings are more intense; sad leaders have sadder employees.
When leaders can’t manage stress or maintain a positive attitude, employees are more likely to see those leaders as harmful or irrelevant to employee and organizational performance. They are also much less likely to see their teams as effective, be highly engaged, and recommend working for the leader and the organization to others.
How Leaders Lose their Way
Leaders are often promoted because they are committed to personal success earlier in their careers. As individual contributors, they can produce more simply by doing more. They can choose to work harder and longer, to be more productive. They have a lot of control over the relationship between effort and outcomes. Leaders, on the other hand, are responsible for the work of others. Leaders’ efforts alone are often insufficient to achieve results, especially if they lack the coaching chops to influence others.
As any parent can tell you, being responsible for the behavior of others is stressful. When raises, promotions and job security are linked to that behavior, the effect is that much more intense. Perhaps that’s why research shows mid-level leaders are more likely to experience stress and depression as they try to balance the expectations of senior leadership with the needs of their teams.
High levels of stress reduce empathy and increase reliance on old behaviors, creating feedback loops where leaders can’t relate to others effectively or adapt their behavior to current circumstances. When their methods fail to achieve results, they become more stressed, further reinforcing the cycle.
Getting Leaders Back on Track
Breaking this cycle requires training leaders in new approaches to managing work, people and stress. While these trainings can incorporate many different lessons, here are five key tips to help leaders reduce their stress and its effects:
- Train leaders to swap checklists with priority lists: A job checklist contains every task that you could do, some of which you will inevitably fail to accomplish, resulting in stress. A priority list only contains items that have real personal or professional impact. The remaining items are deliberately delegated, delayed or dropped. New leaders need support from trainers to recognize that their new role is not to do everything but to decide what needs to be done, as well as when and how. Drawing the distinction between checklists and priority lists can help them adapt and reduce stress.
- Include personal priorities on the list: When leaders build their identity on a foundation of work, a setback at the office can be devastating to their career and self-confidence. The result is a blast of stress that can erode their ability to get back on track. Training should help leaders put their work role in a broader context of personal purpose and meaning. Leaders who see a broader purpose for their work and their lives will be less disrupted by a setback and better able to recover.
- Encourage leaders to share their priority lists: People always ask leaders to do more, placing responsibility on the leader to say no. Leaders often want to remain open to any opportunity but can be frustrated by having to weed through numerous requests. Training should guide leaders on how to proactively share their priorities by speaking up early and directly in a consultative voice that invites conversation. Leaders want to engage others in work-life planning, not come across as making demands or refusing to renegotiate. The result will be fewer misaligned requests and more opportunities that match their priorities.
- Help leaders share responsibility: Leaders too often believe they are responsible for every idea and directing people through the minutiae of accomplishing them. That micro-managing results in more frustration for them and their teams. Leaders need training on how to solicit ideas and advice without giving up a sense of control over the final product. To do so, leaders must embrace their role as facilitators of their team’s creativity and productivity and accept that they will probably do less of the hands-on work themselves. They will be less stressed and achieve better results with a more empowered and satisfied team.
- Train leaders to set boundaries: Institutions are greedy by nature, asking for as much as people can give. Leaders must set boundaries for themselves and their employees that promote long-term sustainability around workloads, deadlines and responsiveness. Coach leaders on how to not only set boundaries but also defend them from both senior leaders and team members, as well as to respect the boundaries set by their teams. While they won’t often be able to refuse a request, training leaders on negotiating timelines creatively, requesting more resources, sharing work among teams and other workload management techniques will improve results for everyone.
These leadership tips integrate well-being and stress management with standard leadership skills. Leaders who use these techniques will not only contribute more to the success of their organizations and teams but also to their own goals.