Last week’s Harvard Business Review article, Help Your Overwhelmed, Stressed-Out Team, offered some useful, practical approaches to help a leader keep her team calm and focused.
But one key element was missing from the mix: the leader’s mindset. If a leader is filled with stress, conflict, anxiety, and negative emotions, it spreads like a virus. A steady dose of toxic energy from higher-ups will encourage valuable team members to update their résumés rather than their to-do lists.
Our Brain on Stress
When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency, but in the worst scenario create an ongoing hazard for performance. In that case, attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand. Our memory reshuffles to promote thoughts most relevant to what’s stressing us, and we fall back on negative learned habits. The brain’s executive centers – our neural circuitry for paying attention, comprehending, and learning – are hijacked by our networks for handling stress.
In 2000, Caroline Bartel at New York University and Richard Saavedra at the University of Michigan found that in 70 work teams across diverse industries, people in meetings together ended up sharing moods – both good and bad – within two hours. One study asked teams of nurses and accountants to monitor their moods over weeks; researchers discovered that their emotions tracked together, and they were largely independent of each team’s shared hassles. Groups, therefore, like individuals, ride emotional rollercoasters, sharing everything from jealousy to angst to euphoria.
Self-regulation is a key ability of emotional intelligence. People who can manage their emotions well are able to recover more quickly from stress arousal. This means, at the neural level, quieting the amygdala and other stress circuits, which frees up the capacities of the executive centers. Attention becomes nimble and focused again, the mind flexible, the body relaxed. And a state of relaxed alertness is optimal for performance.
Your Focus Determines Your Mental State
Think of the mind’s eye as a flashlight. This flashlight can always search for something positive or negative. The secret is being able to control that flashlight – to look for the opportunity and the positive. When you do that, you’re playing to win. You’re able to focus on the right things and maintain that positive self.
And keep in mind that a leader not only has to focus her mind’s eye, but help others focus their minds’ eyes as well.
More Than Sound’s upcoming online course, Thriving on Change, will delve deeper into ways leaders can manage their stress and enhance their focus. Sign up for their free newsletter to learn when and how to register.