In tough situations, with fires ablaze, certain strengths have the tendency to become weaknesses. For example, under stress, a natural and healthy tendency toward neatness and organization can turn compulsive. Smart people with great questions can become ruthless interrogators. Those who take pride in their laser-like focus can become too micro and miss the big picture.When handled improperly, stress acts like kryptonite. It causes your superpowers to turn against you; and, if you’re not careful, your stress can defeat you. While you can’t avoid stress, you can calibrate your reaction to it:
1. Ground your decisions in procedure.
Under stress, we often make decisions more quickly and with less information than usual – the perfect setup for disaster. The best way to avoid this trigger response is to have a procedure in place. Ideally, one than forces you to walk through the steps and get the information you need prior to taking action.
Many great development and technology teams, including our own team at Behance, maintain an “emergency sheet” that explains what to do if a website or key system goes down. The emergency sheet is prepared in advance and kept updated with simple step-by-step instructions for what to do first, who to notify, and how to proceed when the site goes down.
Having a clear procedure for solving certain problems prevents brash decisions and ill-conceived solutions. The trick is to learn from mistakes made under stress and, afterwards, develop a procedure to follow the next time around.
2. Stay open.
For good reason, stress makes you defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness makes you less open and alert to the resources and information around you. When I get stressed, I instinctively become more self-reliant. (Perhaps it is my fear of failure that makes me put my head down and try to solve things all by myself?)Ironically, at the times when it’s most important for us to consult our colleagues and absorb the opinions of others, we’re inclined to isolate ourselves. To offset this tendency, I make special efforts to engage people around me in times of stress. I pose more questions than usual. If I’m working under severe time constraints – drafting quick emails and attempting a quick solution – I remind myself to request a “gut check” from someone else on my team before taking action.
3. Don’t regress.
If you’re not careful, stress will conjure up the very worst of your natural impulses – paranoia, selfishness, and short-sightedness, among them. You’re also liable to misinterpret peoples’ intentions and ignore the help that you need.This is because stress is a natural consequence of the struggle against our primal tendencies. The instinct to run away from danger, or to fend for oneself at the expense of others, is in our ancestral DNA – what Seth Godin calls our “lizard brain.” We need to be aware of these deeply ingrained tendencies and push ourselves to keep evolving.
Great leadership requires a deep sense of self-awareness and a willingness to, when necessary, transform yourself. I say “transform” because your default behaviors, many of which can be destructive, will need to change.For better or worse, the most critical decisions are often made during the most challenging times. By being aware of how stress tweaks your perspective, you can learn how to draw strength from crises rather than being overwhelmed or defeated by them.
How Do You Handle Stress?
What’s in your playbook when it comes to managing and creating under stress?