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A Leader's Guide to Resilience: Responding to Stress in the Workplace

Aug 17, 2007
We live in turbulent times - times that challenge the business leader and call upon new and softer skills. Global, local and organizational factors all contribute to a workplace where stress is overtly present, or worse, flies just under the radar. As an inspired leader - one with relational intelligence - you will bring recognition, resources and resilience to your team.

To many, our world - including our business world - appears to be de-stabilized in an unprecedented manner. They note:

*The threat of terrorist attacks, environmental disasters, and school shootings have all become more real and more immediate, eroding the safety that we once took for granted.
*Constant change within our organizations, including layoffs, mergers and other reorganizations can result in a corporate culture marked by frustration and defeat.
*The accumulated effects of long hours, lack of support, and the perpetual weight of too much to do with too few resources, zaps individual and collective resilience.

Fully one-third of short-term disability is now for mental, rather than physical health reasons. Millions of workdays and billions of dollars are lost. This is the new normal. On the one hand, people grapple with feelings of despair and meaninglessness; and on the other end of the continuum, anxiety rises - sometimes as a response to a specific trigger, but often as a diffuse state of distress with no particular antecedent.

If this sounds more than a little grim, remember that while people - and relationships - can be the victim of stress, they are also the solution. Indeed, isolation tends to perpetuate problems through diminished communication. Contrary to old notions of autonomy as the ultimate goal of mature development, we now know that a healthy inter-dependence is the mark of high functioning maturity. This wisdom has entered the workplace through an increasing orientation to:

*teamwork and consensus building;
*the use of coaches and mentors;
*emotional intelligence; and
*leadership skills that include empathy and collaboration.

But under stress, we can forget what we know. So while it is true that increased conflict and inter-personal tension are often the first casualties of stress, a common error in response is the assumption that tending to relationship is a luxury for when time and patience permits: first the task, then we'll pause to assess the process. With fires to put out and a head to keep above water, thinking about communication and relationship can feel like one more burden. The assumption goes on to state: I can't afford to be thoughtful in relationship. More accurate, of course, is that you can't afford not to be.

The first step is to pay attention to the radar screen. If your environment is stressed, you will recognize:

*greater resistance to change;
*less patience and more anger;
*more inter-personal conflict and disruptions;
*less bounce back when things go wrong.

These are the 'blips' - the lights that say stress is in your airspace and the reminders to stay alert. As a skilled leader, you will model relationship as a resource in times both good and bad: staying attuned, engaged and responsive. And with the intent to be leaderful on behalf of others, will come a remarkable boost to your own resilience. A few best practices:

Recognize and name the stress. More harm has been done by putting on a happy (and false) face, or by otherwise allowing stress free rein to work out of consciousness. State the obvious: acknowledge that an event or circumstance has impact. This alone will bring a measure of relief.

Pick your fights. Learn to distinguish the real issues from the fall-out issues and leave the latter alone. Stress produces lots of red herrings. If someone is uncharacteristically combative, look to the source and cut them some slack. Confronting behaviour isn't always efficacious.

Apply logic to matters of the head and empathy to matters of the heart. Both are excellent tools when applied appropriately and both can wreak havoc when misapplied.

Use a coach, a mentor, or a trusted and unbiased partner in sorting through your own reactivity as well as others'. If you are going to bracket your own feelings of anger, impatience or judgement, you will need help.

Foster connections: they are true lifesavers. Ensure that everyone has the inter-personal connections they need to thrive. As leader, know your own boundaries, limitations and needs.

The paradox is this: if the impact of stressful, dramatic, even traumatic, events is to be reduced in the workplace, we must first acknowledge that very impact. The act of recognition is an act of resilience. And a resourceful leader is one who in turn is a resource. Now more than ever, our environments demand relational intelligence in order to survive, and in doing so, point the way to thriving. We can't always get vectored around the turbulence, but we can minimize it by setting a steady course together.
About the Author
Pat Archer is a leadership coach specializing in interpersonal dynamics in the workplace. Where good business and good relationship meet, her clients resolve conflict, illuminate ethical dilemmas and activate their greatest leadership skills. Visit her website at http://patarchercoaching.com/
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