Monday, June 11, 2007

Workplace Coach: How a leader responds to stress sets tone for everyone


Experience, drive and intellect are important skills for leading successfully in today's business world, but they're not enough.

Successful leaders need to be able to inspire, motivate and communicate that they care about their people. They need to deal effectively not only with their own emotions but with the emotions of those around them.

The workplace today is increasingly full of challenge and stress. We are all being asked to do more with less. One of the greatest challenges leaders face is dealing with stress.

How a leader responds to stress can be contagious. Leaders who openly display anger, fear, resentment and anxiety under stress can be toxic to their people and the business. Allowed to continue unchecked, this kind of behavior can have a devastating impact on an organization. Loose cannons sink ships and human talent can be driven away.

How we deal with stress, challenge and conflict has roots deep in human evolution. The problem: In times of great stress or crisis, our limbic brains literally take over the rest of the brain. In the emotional intelligence arena, this is referred to as an "amygdala hijack," meaning the reptilian part of the brain (the amygdala) has taken over for the more advanced, cognitive part of the brain.

The amygdala is the part of the brain largely responsible for our freeze, fight or flight response; in other words, our caveman defense system. We have millions of years of evolution hard-wired into our brains to protect us from those nasty sabertooths and other predators. While sabertooths no longer exist, sometimes it can seem as if your boss or co-worker is out to get you. This is when the lizard part of your brain kicks in so effectively and totally with its highly protective response. But as Martha Beck (Oprah's O Magazine life coach) says, Do you really want to be taking advice from a lizard?

She makes a great point. When we lose control of our emotions and allow ourselves to be swept away by anger, fear or anxiety, it's usually the lizard in you that is running the show.

How to get the lizard in you under control:

Self-awareness: Develop your ability to see or feel yourself getting "hooked" or hijacked. Getting hooked means someone has pushed your emotional button (or grabbed your lizard). Most of us know our buttons. If you don't, make it your mission to know so you can see them coming.

Many of our triggers stem from early childhood experiences. For example, if you grew up with a father with very high expectations, you may overreact to criticism from a co-worker or boss. Similarly, if you were the middle child (and didn't get the attention you craved), you may "react" when members of your workplace team don't listen to your ideas or pay enough attention to you.

The key is recognizing your triggers so you can make a choice to behave differently. You do have a choice about how you react. Practice tracking and identifying your emotional triggers. Pay attention to the child (and lizard) within you to develop insight about when an "amygdala hijack" may be imminent (Hint: the hair standing up on the back of your neck or breaking into a cold sweat are clues). There are tools and instruments available to help you identify your typical response to stress and challenge and learn new strategies.

Self-regulation: Develop self-soothing or coping strategies to rely on when you know you are hooked. For some a walk around the block or taking deep breaths will work. Others use daily exercise or meditation to help them remain calm. The key is finding what works for you, and remembering to use it when you find yourself headed for trouble.

Next week: How to deal with a boss or peer whose inner lizard is out of control.

Maureen Moriarty is a professional accredited executive coach, organizational development consultant and leadership development corporate trainer. She is the founder of Pathways to Change and offers leadership development courses and coaching to local companies and individuals. Web site: She can be reached at 425-837-9297.

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