The following is a guest post by Dr. Sharon Melnick, author of Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On, about how to keep performing well under pressure and stress.
The average manager is overwhelmed by a convergence of daily stresses: he or she has 30-100 projects on their plate, gets interrupted 7 times an hour, can spend up to 42% of their time managing difficult interpersonal issues, and has a 44% chance of being in a company that is restructuring. These conditions have become the “new normal.”
We only experience performance-interfering stress when the demands of these challenges exceed our perceived ability to control them. The more control you have, the less you will experience stress. Therefore, the key to success under stress is to control what you can control. Even though your workload might be dictated by your manager, and even though there is no remote control button to change the behavior of the difficult personalities on your team, there is much more within your immediate sphere of influence than you think. Most professionals have heard generic advice to eat right, meditate, and don’t react – but few trainings or books offer practical tools for resilience in the face of specific stressful situations at work.
Here’s a case study of one manager who used the strategies from Success under Stress to change from overwhelmed to optimized – and got promoted in the process:
Andrea manages a small internal technical services team. The 61 projects on her plate had to get done with few people. She felt ‘behind’ and stuck “in the weeds’, left work guilty she couldn’t accomplish more and guilty she was late for family dinner time. She was worn out, frustrated, and concerned about her boss’s evaluation.
Three months later she was coming home at a decent hour with more energy and a clear conscience that she had moved the needle on results. She was promoted to be the head of two other teams as well.
How did she go from overwhelmed to optimized – and how can you too?
1) Optimize problem solving: To get more done in the time she had, Andrea a) performed only the work that was within her clarified role, and b) reduced the number of interruptions so she could find uninterrupted time to think and accomplish.
She became the “conductor of the symphony” instead of playing all the instruments. She set clearer goals for her direct reports, mentored them to think like she does, and held them accountable for their goals – rather than doing the work for them.
She designed criteria that helped her triage whether she would allow or defer interruptions. She curtailed recurring interruptions by training her team members and colleagues to consult her FAQ documents or use pre-determined check in times throughout the day.
She started setting aside at least one hour a week for “connect the dots” time in which she would review the challenges of her team through a strategic lens, and come up with bigger picture solutions. During this time, she came up with the proposal to merge the 3 teams that her boss promoted her to lead.
2) Optimize physiology: Numerous times a day, Andrea clenched with anxiety as she thought: “I have too much to do I’ll never get it done.” The physical toll on her could be seen through her trouble sleeping, muscle aches, snapping at her children, forgetfulness, etc. She learned that her nervous system response to stress involves an energizing “On” button, and a calming, relaxing “Off” button. The key to her high performance was to coordinate them. She scheduled periods of focus followed by brief 3 minute exercises to refuel. When she was overwhelmed she did a 1-3 minute “Mental Reset” breathing technique that energized her when foggy, and gave her back calm concentration when wired (she even learned how to put herself back to sleep in 3 minutes when she woke up stressed in the middle of the night. Finally, she got a full night of rest!)
3) Optimize perspective: Andrea often wasted time and energy worrying about others’ perceptions of her. She learned to stop self imposing stress by turning her self criticism into self confidence. When concerned she didn’t have as much technical expertise as her team, she only required herself learn the information necessary to monitor projects (not do all the coding herself). When she was fearful of her boss’s evaluation, she channeled it into how she could add value (such as proposing a new structure for the groups). When she expected perfection from herself, she stopped the pressure to know everything and instead buffed up her skills of critical thinking so she could handle any challenge that arose. Instead of feeling fear and worry, she began to listen to this positive and motivating inner soundtrack. She became a better “DJ of her own mental iPod”.
By using practical tools to optimize problem solving, physiology, and perspective, Andrea eliminated key sources of stress and improved her ability to perform well under the conditions that remained. She received a high performance rating and was given greater responsibility.
Even in fast paced or ever-changing work environments, there are always an endless number of factors you can control for success under stress.
Sharon Melnick, Ph.D. is a business psychologist dedicated to helping professionals “get out of their own way.” Her practical tools are informed by 10 years of research at Harvard Medical School and field-tested by over 6,000 training participants and coaching clients.