Being a leader brings with it a special kind of pressure. When you’re an individual contributor, there is pressure to be sure. But the stress you face when it’s all you, feels less chaotic, more controllable than when you manage a team. As a contributor, you do good work – you do well, you do bad work – you don’t do well. It’s certainly not that simple and yes, there is some pressure there, but for the most part, success and failure is controlled by you. When you’re a leader, the question of how to reduce stress at work hits a little different.
When you’re a leader, things are much messier. Your stress and pressure become an aggregation of all the stresses and pressures for the members of your team. You don’t control the outcomes as much either, so stress emerges from a never-ending fear of surprises. Instead of you being the sole agent of your brand, you now have 5 or 6 or 50 or 60 people operating in the company on your behalf. It’s enough to create anxiety in even the calmest among us.
How to reduce stress at work – a personal perspective
As most of you are aware, I started a new job this year, which ratchets up the pressure a little bit more. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about how to reduce stress at work so much recently. When you’re new, you don’t have years of reputation to fall back on. Every project you take on carries the pressure of making a good impression. Every encounter with a new person carries a little more weight. You’ve got a new team too, and you need time to get used to working with each other – you need to develop trust and a track record of success.
As I’ve gone through this experience, I’ve had to focus on controlling stress and pressure more so than I’ve had to in a while. The good news is, I’ve developed a few habits that are effective for reducing pressure and preventing unnecessary stressful situations. I’m going to share them with you.
How to reduce stress at work – 4 habits that will help you
There is a special kind of pressure reserved only for managers. It’s the pressure that comes from being accountable for people and projects you don’t control … not fully at least. I’ve developed four habits designed to reduce the probability of high stress situations occurring and to handle stress more effectively when they inevitable emerge. I should note, I’m not including practices like mediation, yoga, exercise and diet which are all natural stress relievers. In this blog, I’m going to focus on specific business practices you can introduce that will destress your professional life.
Here are 4 ways leaders can reduce stress at work:
If you evaluate your performance on a moment to moment basis, you can drive yourself crazy. I first learned this lesson trading stocks. If you fixate on every movement up and down, you can miss the big picture entirely. You get antsy. You make rash decisions. You don’t let things take their natural course. It almost always pays to take a step back and assess your performance once a month or once a quarter vs. every hour or every day.
I still struggle with this one. But when I look back at most of the times I’ve been stressed out at work, I really didn’t need to be. Things worked out after a little time had passed. In retrospect, I expended a lot of negative energy fighting against stresses that were largely self-imposed and temporary. My advice to managers is to score yourself on a wider time frame. Resist the temptation to draw conclusions about how you’re doing on a day to day basis. Do a monthly or quarterly check in with yourself and take corrective actions based on the bigger picture. It’s must less stressful and more effective.
You hear managers talk about treating their team members like partners, but it’s frequently just talk. It’s much more common for managers to direct the team and hold them accountable for results. In my experience, that model actually creates more stress. By operating in this way, you place yourself at the pinnacle of the pressure pyramid. All stress rolls up to you.
When you treat your team members like partners – where you undertake projects together – any pressure that exists is diffused across everyone. You all take a share of the pressure which reduces any one person’s individual burden. Moreover, when you partner and collaborate with your team, there are fewer stress creating surprises since you’re involved every step of the way.
My advice to managers is to work with your team on projects vs. directing from afar. The impact, in my experience, is higher quality outputs, a more engaged team, and much less stress for you.
This one is really the inverse of the previous one so I won’t spend too much time on it. Long time readers have heard me recommend this approach before. There is very little more stressful than working on a project in isolation for an entire month and then presenting it to your boss for feedback … cold. This is a super high risk way of managing your career and places a ton of unnecessary pressure on you. Some managers, ostensibly to demonstrate independence, try to minimize how much they involve their boss in projects. I do the opposite.
By engaging your boss earlier in projects, you de-risk and de-stress the outcome. Your boss, by virtue of being involved, assumes a measure of accountability for the project and becomes personally invested in a positive outcome. The likelihood of surprise or a negative result goes down considerably. And even if the result is negative, your boss will take on a share of the responsibility. This should lead to less pressure on you and fewer unsuccessful projects.
It’s one thing for you to commit to treating your team members as partners and involving your boss earlier and more often. It’s another thing entirely to get others around you to do the same. Teams that adopt a “no surprises” culture tend to have more successful projects and way less stress. Here are a few easy things you can implement on your team to encourage this philosophy:
Weekly full team stand-ups to stay aligned and aware across groups
Pre-launch and pre-presentation reviews to reduce mistakes or surprises
Adopt a “who else needs to know” mantra when new information is created
Getting your entire department to embrace a no surprises mindset is a win for everyone. Nobody likes to be embarrassed. Nobody likes to worry about being surprised. These are major sources of stress. Building a culture that fights against this can go a long way to reducing pressure on you and your team.
How to reduce stress at work – final thoughts
For a leader, reducing stress at work is a lifetime endeavour. There are no short cuts and there will always be setbacks along the way. Certainly, in my career, managing stress and anxiety has been one of my greatest challenges. I’ve spent years developing specific techniques and practices that have worked well for me, especially this year as I’ve started a new job with a new team. I hope they’re helpful to you too.
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