In our last blog post, we spoke about Decision Making. Today we’re moving on to the fifth and final building block of emotional intelligence: Stress Management. Like all of these building blocks, Stress Management is made up of three main skills that we can develop over time:
- Flexibility: Ability to adapt thoughts and behaviors to new or uncertain scenarios and ideas.
- Stress Tolerance: Capacity to manage difficult situations and cope with stress.
- Optimism: Hopefulness and confidence about the future and life in general.*
After a whirlwind six weeks, I was about to start my first day as Executive Producer in our company’s London office. I’d gotten married, honeymooned in Belize, attended our company’s holiday party in Las Vegas, found a flat in London (Hampstead, to be exact) and moved across the ocean. With my brand new husband back in New York and half our belongings in storage, I stood there pressing the door buzzer to start my first day in our Soho office.
No amount of jet lag could dampen my excitement. I’d been tasked with examining and revamping all operations, including sales, the bidding process, client and project management, and our talent. Handed a complex situation with high stakes in a chaotic environment: I was totally in my sweet spot. Although I didn’t know what to expect, one thing became obvious: my presence clearly wasn’t welcome.
This shouldn’t have surprised me. I knew going in that this role would have its challenges. Although we were a couple of years into our merger, performance in this office wasn’t meeting expectations. I knew I could serve the people in this office and make a positive impact on the company. And yet, we had code red levels of dysfunctional communication and politics daily. How was I supposed to improve performance if they perceived me as the enemy?
It was prime time to increase my Stress Management skills. Having survived panic attacks and a high stress work environment in our NYC office, I knew that no matter how tough it seemed, I would figure out this situation as well. That optimism and confidence supported me as I learned the inner workings of this office.
Despite that, I found myself battling the daily (and sometimes hourly) mistakes that threatened to overshadow the incremental wins we were building. In spite of my optimism, many nights still found me crying into my glass of white wine listening to Amy Winehouse. Each day took all the mental, emotional and physical energy I had to give.
If I wanted to show up as the leader I knew I could be, I was going to have to prioritize taking care of myself. Simple things like working out, getting enough sleep and connecting with friends rose on my priority list. Instead of being optional, they became a necessity.
Drawing boundaries and letting go of my desire to be liked were also non-negotiable. Working in professional services required a great deal of flexibility to meet client demands. However, I’d overdeveloped that skill and it no longer served me nor the company. Rather than constantly accommodating everyone else’s opinions, I had to stand my ground.
To get clarity around the company’s values required pausing to ask the hard questions and look deeper at the long term consequences. A decision that would quickly solve a client or operational issue might look good at the time, but later on might create even bigger issues. Taking some extra time up front ultimately saved time and money down the road as those insights and data informed future decisions as well.
Learning when to be flexible and when to stick to the plan is a must for any leader. When it comes to your own and your company’s values, don’t budge. How those values are expressed, however, may vary depending on your function or current priorities. Decisions and actions come more easily with clarity, so if you’re unclear on what matters most, ask someone who can provide direction.
Now let’s look at the areas in your business and personal life that are currently causing you the most amount of stress. Exploring them through the following lenses can support optimal stress management. What do you notice? What do you want to do about it?
- Notice how often your opinion shifts throughout a project. Does this shift the end result you want? How does it impact the team? There are times when going with the flow is a good call. There are also times to stick with the original plan.
- Find the third option. When it seems like you’re at a crossroads and divided between two options, look for something completely different. What could be a possible third option? It may not be as obvious as the other two.
- Check your alignment. Sometimes being flexible pulls us or members of our team out of whack. Maybe the team is burned out. Maybe the original vision is getting lost in the details. Take a step back to reconnect with your values and vision and move forward from there.
- Take regular breaks. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to pause.Take a few deep breaths. Walk around the office (or around the block). Move and breathe and find new scenery.
- Learn JOSNO (the joy of saying no). Renegotiate agreements on both the personal as well as professional level. Practice with commitments big and small.
- Simplify the process. Are you a great multi-tasker? Do you manage cumbersome workflows? Just because you can handle it, doesn’t mean you should. If there’s a way to make the process easier for you and your team, take time to refine the process.
- Notice your perspective. Does it line up with reality? How do you know? Sometimes for the sake of being positive, we gloss over potential obstacles. Look for the obstacle. When the challenges are clear, you can come up with better solutions.
- Give your team (and yourself) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you don’t have all of the resources you need, but you probably have enough to start. Once you start, new options will open up.
- Ask where you’re wrong. We all need to account for confirmation bias. It’s natural to seek confirmation for our plan or perspective. This can keep us from optimizing and innovating. Find someone with a different perspective and ask what you may be missing.
That London experience changed me forever in ways that still support my leadership. I learned to deeply trust my inner wisdom and follow it. I got better at making optimal decisions instead of looking for the perfect one (hint: perfect decisions don’t exist). Most importantly, I learned that if being liked meant compromising on values, I didn’t need to be liked.
Three months into my assignment, the company asked if I’d stay on permanently. Performance was up. I loved our team and what we were able to accomplish. In the year and a half that I ran that office, the stress did get more manageable. My capacity to lead grew exponentially which led to my next stop moving back to Chicago to run the whole company.
Obviously it’s easier to see things more clearly when you’re outside of the situation. So allow yourself the time and grace to look at your situations through new eyes or through the eyes of a mentor or colleague. Give yourself the opportunity to look at habits you might not realize you are doing. Marshall Goldsmith digs into twenty of the most typical habits that may be holding you back in his leadership classic What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.
If you’ve read through this series, you’ve now got a wealth of tools around relationships and self awareness that you can leverage. All of these skills work together like a kaleidoscope, supporting you as you evolve as a human and a leader.
Thank you for reading along with this series. If you missed any of the other four aspects of Emotional Intelligence, check out the other blog posts in the series on: Self Perception, Self Expression, Interpersonal Relationships, and Decision Making.
*For a deeper understanding of Emotional Intelligence, I recommend the work of Steven J. Stein, author of The EQ Edge and The EQ Leader. Stein developed a valuable assessment to better understand how you’re currently using your emotional intelligence skills, allowing you to clarify opportunities for personal and professional growth.
If you’d like to better understand your own emotional intelligence skills, taking the assessment and getting a debrief from a certified emotional intelligence expert might be the right step. Contact me here for more information.