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Why Leaders Don’t Brag About Successfully Managing Stress

November 4, 2014
Borderless Leadership

Imagine what it’s like to be General Motors CEO Mary Barra. In her brief tenure, GM will have recalled almost 28 million automobiles worldwide. Her firm is besieged by allegations of having a culture of carelessness and a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

Surely these problems crowd her thoughts. Her body is no doubt dumping cortisol and epinephrine at astonishing rates. Both of these neurochemicals can cause a host of physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, as well as cognitive ailments and depression. The longer the body is exposed to these chemicals, the greater their toll.

Of course, stress can sometimes be a positive force, focusing a person’s attention, boosting determination, and energizing action. It can help us buckle down and hold fast. It encourages clear-headed prioritization and resolve. But it can also hobble us. The question is when and why it does so, and what to do about it.

The most important question for executives under stress — whether or not you have Barra-level responsibilities — is how to counter its corrosive effects. Over the past three years I conducted interviews with 127 executives from 18 countries to explore senior executives’ sources of renewal in the face of relentless tension.

To renew themselves, executives take a number of steps, which fall roughly into four categories. Health, including exercise, sleep, and diet, is the most common type of renewal. What I call “removal” is the next most common; removal is anything that whisks you away from work’s struggles. Concerts, sporting events, theater, movies, TV, and fine dining were mentioned, as were stopping by the spa or the tavern. Family time fits here too.

The third category is intellectual activities, such as puzzles, games, the study of history or botany, reading, bird-watching, and hobbies like model building. The fourth is introspection: Transcendental Meditation, prayer, breathing techniques, setting aside time for reflection, therapy (including Neural Feedback Training), and participation in support groups.

These executives are on the right track. Past research has shown that the harmful effects of stress can be at least partially counteracted by spending just 20 to 30 minutes per day engaging in renewal activities.

This is clearly an area where organizations can help their executives. Companies should be making deliberate efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of renewal and should be helping executives establish regimens of such activities. An example of how to do this well is financial services group USAA, whose campuses include meditation rooms and outdoor game areas, and encourage walking by placing colored mile markers around headquarters.

Yet for the most part, this isn’t happening. While 79% of the surveyed executives say they recognize the importance of renewal, only 35% say their firms have programs to encourage such activities.

More surprising is the finding that executives who recognize the value of renewal don’t do much to encourage their own direct reports to follow their example. Only 50% say they encourage renewal activities among their staffs.

Why do executives who understand and have experienced the value of renewal keep their knowledge to themselves? My interviews with corporate leaders suggest that the reason may have to do with the power of the corporate culture of soldiering on. Executives may worry that colleagues would snicker if they knew about the stamp collection or the daily meditation sessions. These vital activities might be perceived as signs of weakness.

So one of the most important things an organization can do to help executives reduce stress is to disabuse people of the idea that stoicism equals strength. They need to educate managers not only about the dangers of stress but also about the need for activities that reduce it. They should make it clear that the kind of strength the organization needs isn’t the strength of clenched teeth and masked feelings, but the strength that comes from reduced tension – in other words, that there is power in renewal.

By James R. Bailey

Source: Harvard Business Review

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