Lead by example with effective stress, pressure management

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jim Annexstad
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Staff Judge Advocate
Gen. George S. Patton Jr., said it best -- "Pressure makes diamonds." 

The military world we work in is full of high-stakes tasks, urgent requirements, and change. These all result in pressure. 

Leaders have a double duty. First, they have to do what they can to manage external pressures so their staffs can adequately deal with them. 

Second, they need to manage the ensuing stress for themselves and help others deal with the stress they experience so all can work constructively and resourcefully. If handled well, pressure-filled situations can result in thoughtful and effective, rather than panicky, products. 

Leaders need to manage pressure. The first step in dealing with a source of pressure is to understand it fully. Define the challenge in terms of discrete tasks and the resources required to accomplish them, sort out the issues, and determine precisely what end products are required. 

Once you are satisfied that the mission is clear, you can establish a plan of action that sets priorities and allocates resources. Depending on the task, the plan can range from an oral understanding as to who will do what and when, to a detailed written document. 

Leaders must also address their own stress. Manageable stress can spur people to action and encourage peak performance. Excessive stress can impede productivity and affect health. 

Emotional indicators of excessive stress include irritability, anger, depression, frustration, fatigue, anxiousness, or the urge to cry. Physical symptoms range from mild headaches and muscle tension to neck and back pain, stomach problems, clenched jaws, sweaty hands, tics, rashes, insomnia or decreased mental concentration. 

Clearly, leaders owe it to themselves and their people to do what they can to keep stress from producing those effects. A leader begins by managing personal stress. 

Know what your stressors are. List the things that cause you the most stress and see what you can do to mitigate or eliminate them. Does your computer's e-mail notification sound make you jumpy? Turn it off and instead check e-mail every 15 minutes or half an hour. 

Does someone you work with have a habit that drives you up a wall? Either talk to them pleasantly and privately about it or accept it as a fact of life and move on to other thoughts. 

If you can't eliminate the source of stress then try to offset it. Popular coping measures include exercise, breathing deeply, taking breaks, meditating and reading something light. 

One effective way to reduce your stress level is to discuss your burdens with someone you trust and whose opinion you value. Just venting may help, but another person's perspective can offer solutions where you only see problems. 

Once the leader has a handle on personal stress levels, it is time to look to the others. Above all, be calm. People are watching you and will take their cue from your actions. They will respond differently if they believe they are witnessing panic or frenzy versus confidence and composure. 

Your management of pressure and stress will directly impact the performance and stress levels of others. Your job is to reduce pressure, not amplify it. 

Be attuned to the stress levels of your people. This is where "management by walking around" is invaluable. Are people distracted, edgy or listless? Are you hearing complaints from your staff or clients? Are work products late or unsatisfactory? Is anyone experiencing a stressful event at home? 

Be aware of the workloads people carry and reallocate duties if necessary. Know who is staying late and why. If you notice individuals or groups who appear stressed, take action. Ask them how things are going, and see if they recognize their stress response and its root cause. Let them know that stress is a normal response to pressure and not something to be embarrassed about. 

If the cause is an external source of pressure you're already aware of, acknowledge it and explain what you've done to modulate it. Discuss your favorite management techniques and offer support and additional resources as appropriate. Your immediate intervention will help them develop their own ability to adapt and perform under pressure. 

Create a low-stress office environment. Set a good example with your work and relaxation habits. Are you exercising regularly, eating healthy meals and spending time with your family? If not, consider the mixed message you're sending and recommit yourself to leading by good example. 

After that, look for and root out inefficient processes and facility features that frustrate people as they are trying to deal with pressure. Things like cumbersome suspense systems and cluttered offices can increase tension. 

Accept that pressure and stress will occur, but don't resign yourself to whatever you encounter. Great leaders benefit themselves and their people by striving to minimize both of these issues.