Is stress impairing your performance at work and compromising your relationships? Changing the way you think about stress can help you turn stress into an ally and use it to improve mental agility and work performance; a reportin the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that physiological and cognitive benefits result from thinking of stress as “functional and adaptive” rather than a signifier of “threat.”
Turning stress to your advantage is no easy task. It requires mental discipline to pause when you’re in the grip of stress and to reframe it as potentially useful. In my executive coaching practice, I help clients transform their attitude about stress. There are many ways to do this, and the method needs to be individually tailored to each client’s unique situation. Here are three ways that clients in my practice have reappraised their stress and used it to propel positive changes:
Reconceive essential relationships. The third-generation CEO of a family business, my client experienced severe stress as his executive team (comprised of older family members) lambasted his every decision about how to run the company. Feeling defensive, he retreated from key CEO tasks such as strategic planning and securing a line of credit to keep the business afloat. Coaching focused on interpreting his stress as a signal to redefine his relationships with family members, whose support would be essential for survival of the company. Coaching empowered him to think of his family members as repositories of wisdom, people whose interests were aligned with his own. As he rethought these relationships, he transformed the monthly executive meetings from a battleground into a collaborative brainstorming session on opportunities for the company. With this newfound focus, the CEO harnessed the team’s knowledge and motivation to grow the company. Not only did he feel calmer and happier, but within four months he secured the line of credit and initiated critical discussions with potential outside investors. By reappraising his stress as a friendly message to heal valuable relationships, he protected the business and repositioned it for growth.
Develop strategic leadership skills. Another client was an attorney who was recently promoted to serving as his biotech firm’s general counsel, a position in which he was expected both to oversee the legal department and function as a strategic partner in the C-suite. He felt overwhelmed by the pressures of the two roles and the need to delegate tasks to associate attorneys. His stress mounted as he micromanaged their work and got “stuck in the weeds” of low-level tasks. We strove to reframe his stress as a signal that he should stretch beyond his comfort zone and embrace his new responsibilities as a strategic partner on the executive team. This reappraisal prompted him to begin placing more trust in his legal staff’s decision-making capabilities, to meet more often with key partners inside and outside the firm, and to embrace leadership roles that would position him more as a visionary leader than a worker bee. As he did so, his stress evaporated and he led the executive team to take a bold step toward expanding the business into a complex but potentially lucrative overseas market.
Apologize and express gratitude. Another client, the chief operating officer of an insurance company, was experiencing massive stress in the context of a work crisis. During a recent company event, she consumed an excessive amount of alcohol and embarrassed herself by making loud and rude comments to colleagues. Her behavior became so unruly that she was put in a taxi and sent home. She was terrified that she would lose her job. Part of the coaching focused on how to communicate with the CEO and executive team in the wake of this blunder. I was taken aback when she told me that she planned in an upcoming meeting with the CEO to complain that her year-end bonus was lower than she deserved based on performance metrics. My responsibility, I realized, was to respectfully confront her about how ill-conceived and potentially destructive this approach would be. After pointing out that her ongoing stress might be a signal that she was still uncomfortable with this course of action, we had a productive dialogue about alternative strategies. Ultimately, she concluded that it would be most prudent not to request a higher bonus, but instead to apologize for her behavior at the event and express thanks that she still had her job at all. This decision immediately reduced her stress level and served her well with the CEO and management team. She retained her position and continues to repair her reputation as a trustworthy leader in the firm.
These vignettes are real-world examples of what psychologists have been learning about stress management in well-controlled experiments. If you can reappraise stress as a constructive hint that you should seriously reorient your thinking and behavior, then the stress can diminish and steer you toward a renewed sense of purpose and growth.