From chocolate to red meat, we’re always told everything in moderation. Not too much and not too little. But what about stress?
When working in a leadership role, stress has been written into the fine print of your contract. It’s not listed in your job description, and it’s not discussed as a potential learning opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s a given aspect of working in a leadership position.
It doesn’t have to be like that! Stress in short bursts is an effective tactic that primes your brain for improved performance.
“You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not. Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance.” Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley
But what happens during those short sharp bursts of high stress where you feel out of control, the situation feels threatening and you lack the brain capacity to respond rationally?
Self-regulating these emotions, especially as a leader, will help you to better manage and help yourself and others. Defensiveness, anger and frustration are all typical emotionally charged reactions triggered by our flight or fight response when faced with a high stress situation. Self-regulating these emotions leads to a higher state of consciousness, removing ourselves from our subconscious brain, inviting collaboration and creativity.
There has been recent research in the field of neuroscience that offers insight into the process of self-regulation. For more of the science-minded details, head on over to the Harvard Business Review article by Robert E. Quinn, David P. Fessell and Stephen W. Porges, 2021. [source]
In the article, there are three levels to the fight or flight response.
Level 1: Immobilisation
- Collapse and mimic death (we do not recommend this in a work environment)
Level 2: Mobilisation
- Heart beats faster
- Body produces cortisol and adrenaline
- Fight or flight response
- Aggression vs fleeing
Level 3: Engagement & Connection
- A new pathway in the brain becomes functional, quietening the defensive features of both fight or flight responses and shutdown pathways.
- Body releases oxytocin (the feel-good hormone)
- We become more open and experience a sense of connectedness
- Connectedness leads to collaboration and learning
Quinn, Fessell and Porges have developed a five-step framework to help people make this shift from level two to level three, in order to effectively lead through stressful situations.
This five-step framework has been sourced directly from the article mentioned above. [source]
Step 1– Understanding:
The first step is knowing the biology behind these reactions and accepting that being at level one, two, or three is normal. Knowing where you are on the hierarchy gives you choice and the power to shift.
Step 2– Awareness:
When you feel challenged, notice the physical and emotional cues that signal you’re experiencing anxiety. Do you feel a knot in your stomach? Or your heart racing? See these as signs of where you are in your reaction: likely level two.
Step 3 – Recall:
Bring to mind previous experiences where you’ve successfully moved through uncertainty in the past. You might even write down what you did to navigate a difficult situation and use your own success to give yourself hope that you can get through this one too.
Step 4 – Intention:
With hope in mind, let go of the need to serve your ego by clarifying your highest purpose. Focusing on your intention will release oxytocin and help you shift to level three.
Step 5 – Trust the process:
When you’re at level three, it’s much easier to explore and develop ideas with the other person. The interaction is an emergent learning process — it will be challenging, but as long as you stay connected and don’t move back to level one or two, you can get through it together. In fact, you can become skilled at making others safe and keep inviting them back into mutually beneficial conversations.
Managing stressful situations is difficult, especially as a leader. Next time you find yourself in the fight or flight response, take note of the five-step framework and try to employ the method to self-regulate, leading to more honest, open and collaborative conversations.