Management by Coaching
GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
Keeping your cool when the heat is on
Steve was close to the breaking point. The new house he and his wife had been building over the past year was three months behind schedule and costs were running 28% over budget. When confronted, all the contractor said was: “That’s normal for new construction.”
The office phones hadn’t been working for three days. When clients dialed in, they received a message that the number was no longer in service. Furious, Steve was on his sixth call to the phone system vendor and his seventh promise from yet another service representative to get the problem fixed by the end of the business day.
Then things went from bad to worse.
He got a last-minute call from his “go-to” underwriter telling him that, because of new company underwriting requirements, she couldn’t renew one of the agency’s largest accounts. With fewer than 30 days until expiration, Steve knew he didn’t have nearly enough time to remarket the complex account. Enraged about the late notice and unable to control his anger, he lashed out at the underwriter and everyone else who crossed his path that day.
Typically controlled, Steve was angry with himself for losing it.
As a leader, he was closely attuned to his responsibility as a role model and he knew the negative impact his temper could have on agency colleagues and the relationships he valued. He viewed himself as being above engaging in that kind of emotional outburst. What Steve underestimated is the impact that stress has on the brain. At reasonable levels, stress keeps the brain alert, and we perform better. But when stress becomes excessive or prolonged, it affects the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain responsible for the top-down regulation of our emotions, self-control, and the ability to make smart decisions. When we need control most, we often don’t have it.
When stress becomes excessive or prolonged, it affects the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain responsible for the top-down regulation of our emotions, self-control, and the ability to make smart decisions. When we need self-control most, we often don’t have it.
In a world where excessive and prolonged stress seems to be a permanent part of the landscape, how do we remain the calmest person in the room in terms of how we feel inside and what we project to the people around us?
Don’t get to the point of no return
Excessive stress brings out the worst in us. Once we’re in that state, it’s difficult to turn it off. One of the most effective tactics we can use is to avoid letting ourselves reach the point where we have little control over our reactions.
Know and monitor your boiling point. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We all boil at different degrees.” Know where your boiling point is and pay close attention throughout the day to where you are relative to this point. Some people find it helpful to schedule several check-ins on their calendar. Others prefer to use one of the many apps that are available for monitoring stress. When you see that your level is high, do everything you can to disengage from situations and people that will test your patience or add to your pressure.
Slow down. A popular saying among race car drivers is: “Slow in the cockpit equals fast on the track.” I know what you’re thinking: You don’t have time to slow down. But that’s shortsighted. The time you invest in to keeping yourself calm, rested, and under control is minimal compared with the time you’d spend trying to recover from bad decisions, damaged relationships, and the stress your stress causes others.
Understand your style when your stress level is high. Building on the work of Carl Jung, a leading thinker in modern psychology, Dr. David Merrill defined four styles of people. Each of us has a dominant style that influences the way we work. Under heavy stress, our normal style becomes extreme. We push our normal tendencies to the hilt. Our behavior becomes inflexible and our points of view non-negotiable. In their book People Styles at Work, Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton explain the four styles and how each responds to stress:
Expressives. Under normal circumstances, expressives are people oriented, articulate, fast paced, visionary, and fun loving. They’re assertive and emotional. When overloaded with stress, they attack and focus their frustrations on others. These normally assertive and emotive people become even more emotional and unrestrained. Quick tempered and hotheaded, they can resort to strong abusive language, shouting, and emphatic and belligerent gestures. Expressives get the stress out of their system and proceed as if nothing ever happened. The impact on others is significant.
Drivers. Drivers typically are strong willed, independent, candid, pragmatic, and results oriented. Under extreme stress, drivers retain control of their emotions but become autocratic in trying to impose their will, thoughts, and plans on others. They seem unbending and closed to any idea other than their own. Their autocratic manner generally produces resistance to their ideas, no matter how sound.
Amiables. In periods of low stress, amiables are quiet, dependable, people oriented, and supportive. They avoid conflict. Under stress, their desire to avoid conflict and appease others becomes even more pronounced. They go overboard to appear cooperative and keep the peace. Although they appear to be cooperative, they’re not committed. Amiables are slow to anger, but they are also slow to forgive and forget.
Analyticals. Analyticals are generally task oriented, systematic, and focused on quality. They’re normally quiet and emotionally reserved, and they prefer working alone. When analyticals experience an overload of tension, they shut down and avoid interaction. Although physically present, they are emotionally absent. Their behavior carries a mixed message. Their calm, rational demeanor suggests they are not upset, but in fact they are highly stressed.
The better you understand your style and how you typically react to extreme stress, the easier it is to spot and stop the behavior before it gets you into trouble. If you’d like to take a free self-assessment to identify and learn more about your style, email me at email@example.com.
Manage daily habits that add to stress. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels, even without a stressor present. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all impaired when you don’t get enough sleep. Watch caffeine consumption. Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline that puts the brain and body in a hyper-aroused state of stress. Take a technology time out. Forcing yourself offline and turning off your phone give your body a break from constant sources of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels.
Stress levels rise when a gap exists between our expectations and what we experience. That’s why it’s important to make sure your expectations are realistic:
Accept that most people are not like you. Behavioral science researchers have discovered that 75% of the population is significantly different from you or any other individual. Therein lies the rub. As much as we know we’re supposed to embrace diversity, deep down we want people to be like us—to share our work ethic, commitment, style of communication, sense of urgency, and approach to getting things done. When they’re not like us, we get frustrated and our stress increases. Accepting that most people don’t see the world as you do—and that this is something you can’t change—will significantly increase your patience and reduce your stress.
Realize that people won’t always be at their best. The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Every morning when I leave my house, I say to myself, today I shall meet an imprudent man, an ungrateful one and one who talks too much. Therefore, do not be surprised.” Aurelius wasn’t frustrated when people didn’t live up to his expectations, because he took the time to be realistic.
Know that no matter how well you plan and prepare or how enlightened you become, you’ll still find yourself in situations where you struggle to maintain self-control. When you do:
Hit the pause button. Taking a pause can make the difference between saying or doing something you will regret and enabling your wiser self to prevail. When you pause, you give yourself the space to collect your thoughts. If you add a deep slow breath or two, you disrupt the set of nerves that send an alarm to your brain’s arousal center that you’re in danger. Breathing helps keep the brain on an even keel and allows the body to maintain a sense of calm.
Use the power of silence. When tensions are running high and tempers are flaring, sometimes the most impactful thing you can do is to say nothing. You are often most powerful and influential in an argument when you are silent. People don’t expect silence. They expect yelling, drama, defensiveness, offensiveness, and lots of back and forth. They expect you to leap into the ring and fight. Your mindful silence can totally shift the energy in the room.
Don’t take others’ behavior personally. Even if it feels personal, people rarely do things because of you. They do things because of them—their ego, fears, life experience, need to be right, and so on. The way they behave is their issue. Remembering this when you feel unjustly attacked, underappreciated, or disrespected can go a long way in helping you retain your cool.
Put the situation in perspective. In a crisis, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision, become bogged down in details, and get attached to your own opinions and agendas while losing sight of overall goals. Remember what’s really important.
The odds are that the calm, composed, placid, steady, level-headed colleague who can put one foot in front of the other and move forward no matter what’s going on wasn’t born that way. Being unflappable doesn’t come naturally to most people. With awareness and practice, you can develop the skills you need to maintain your cool when situations heat up.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is President of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive and lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.