​​Emotional resilience is key for good leaders

Margie Ireland

plant growing through pavement

How good are you at managing your stress while at work? 

Research into 360 degree feedback has shown that many leaders lack self-awareness of how they show up at work. 

I have found in my experience in coaching that many leaders are surprised, and in some cases horrified about how transparent their stress is. 

Improperly managed stress can lead to demotion, formal warnings or untimely exits. Hiding stress is not the solution, understanding and managing stress more effectively, is.

Understanding stress is key to being an effective leader 

Learning how to identify stress is going to help you develop a new way of relating to it when it shows up. 

Most people have heard of the fight-flight-freeze response. 

What you might not know is that when this happens, your mind is put into a time machine and taken back millions of years, plonking you in the middle of the wilderness, looking for food. You haven’t eaten for days, nor has your family. To your left you suddenly see prey – dinner for all – but then to your right, you see a large hungry lion, who sees you as dinner. 

Right at that moment the flight-freeze-fight response triggers. Do you fight the lion, run from the lion, or stand still and hope the lion doesn’t see you? In 2022 your lion could be your board, boss, partner, kids, ex-partner, quarterly reports, public speaking, difficult conversations, going to the gym, specific people, and so on.

This fight-flight-freeze response happens so fast, you may not even notice it, other than a feeling of dread, butterflies in your stomach, or your head about to explode. 

This response is important as it is there to protect you from the lion. The only problem is, you can no longer access a very important part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, where logic and good decisions are made. In this moment of seeing the lion, logic is not important – survival is, so your incredible mind and body knows to send all its resources to the part of your brain called the amygdala, which will help you survive. 

This is the moment when you can lose connection with your behaviour and how you are showing up. It is understandable given how much attention your mental processing is focussed on “how do I survive or solve this problem”. This is an automatic response that we don’t always recognise in the moment. 

For example, we see someone we don’t want to talk to, so without really thinking we look the other way or pretend not to see them or ignore their call (flight) and then later think, “that was a bit childish”. 

Or, we can’t bring ourselves to make a decision on something (freeze – not taking a step forward or back for fear of making the wrong decision). 

Or, we become defensive or micro-manage (fight) and regret what we said or did later. 

Depending on the situation, our response may be more-or-less extreme than these examples. 

Even if you only experience stress from time to time, if not attended to it can lead to other health problems, such as poor sleep, high blood pressure, heart disease and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. And all of these show up in some way with your colleagues and employees. 

The not-for-profit sector

During my provisional registration as a psychologist, I worked for two not-for-profit organisations. I witnessed first-hand the additional pressures leaders in this space were under, such as managing a variety of stakeholder groups, which often came with greater complexity than a commercial for-profit business. Since then, coaching these leaders, I have observed many struggles with managing these relationships, particularly if they didn’t have healthy coping strategies to manage their stress. 

Healthy coping strategies for stress will mean for a happier, healthier leadership style. 

Try these

  • Ask someone you trust at work if they have noticed when you have been stressed, and how they know. What is it that you do or say differently that gives you away? You may even like to give that person permission to let you know when they notice this change, so that you can build your self-awareness. Self-aware leaders are more effective leaders. 
  • Be honest with yourself. Write down some examples of when you have avoided someone, delayed a decision or been defensive, or all three. What about those situations did you find stressful, and write this down. Research suggests writing down worries reduces them.
  • Start noticing people around you, and how they may be using their own flight-freeze-fight response. Maybe they are having a bad day too and just need a kind word. Expressing compassion to another has the bonus of helping you stress less!  

These strategies let your amygdala know you are not dealing with a lion. This frees you up to reconnect with how you are feeling, but also how you are behaving. So you can make better decisions on how you lead, even during a time of stress. 

Margie Ireland is the author of The Happy Healthy Leader – how to achieve your potential even during a crisis. Margie is a registered psychologist, leadership coach and workshop facilitator. She helps leaders and their teams navigate stress and change with healthier coping strategies, leading to happier, healthier and high-performing teams.