Is Stress Just Part of the Job?

August 18, 2022
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When you’re leading at scale, you will undoubtedly encounter stress. Managing stress is a critical skill in today’s workplace where leaders are increasingly called upon to navigate complexity and lead with purpose and impact. However, we know from our research that leaders often have difficulty managing stress behaviors effectively.

Forming healthier responses to stress is an issue I frequently deal with as an executive coach. Usually, leaders cope with stress by dealing with the symptoms—what is happening and how can I change that? But unless you address the underlying cause, they will continue to make the same interpretations about situations and will continue to experience stress time after time.

Often a necessary solution is challenging your own beliefs, usually with help from a coach, so you can recognize your stress response, reframe your thoughts, and feel differently—and therefore behave differently. If you don’t, chances are you will keep on demonstrating behaviors that undermine you as a leader.

What do these unchecked stress responses look like? Do you recognize in yourself a tendency for arrogance, deference, impulsivity, or volatility when you feel under pressure? These responses are attempts to protect ourselves from perceived threats, but they don’t belong in the modern-day workplace!

The way we respond to stress can be defined early in life and requires a lot of unpacking. When we do so, a leader will often see what happened in their past playing out in their relationships with colleagues. For example, a leader who has developed an insecure attachment style might find their response to stress is to be distant, anxious, or self-doubting.

By dealing with responses to stress, we can understand how they shape our behavior. Leading in the current climate, with empathy and through uncertainty, requires leaders to manage stress behaviors successfully.

If you are interested in this topic, our series on cultivating resilience may be of interest to you: Seven Tips for Cultivating Resilience.

Michael Peterman is a senior partner at RHR and the head of development for Executive Bench. He builds next-generation leadership solutions, each of which is grounded in science and research.