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How to be a human-centered leader when stressed anxious

How to Be a Human-Centered Leader when You’re Stressed, Anxious, or Freaked-Out

by | Aug 30, 2021 | By David Dye, Winning Well |

Many people find it easier to be a human-centered leader when everything’s going well. But when you’re stressed and anxious, it’s easy to snap at your team, lose your temper, and undermine the culture you’ve worked so hard to build. If you have too many of these freak-out moments, your people will conclude that kindness is only for the easy times. Stress and anxiety are unavoidable, but you can lead through these times to build a stronger and more productive team.

5 Steps to be a Human-Centered Leader When You’re Stressed

  1. Recognize
  2. Remember
  3. Reassess
  4. Reconnect
  5. Respond

It Happens

Karin and I are no strangers to the stress and anxiety that come with leadership. One time my organization faced significant financial stress and I was under pressure to deliver results that felt unrealistic. After three weeks of this stress, two of my department heads came to me and said, “You’re not David anymore. What’s going on? How can we help?” Apparently, I’d become terse, overly directive, wasn’t listening to feedback, and was snapping at people.

Karin shared a similar moment where she had a tough couple of weeks. A cocktail of challenges had affected her team’s normally high performance. They needed strong results immediately. She didn’t realize how much her stress showed on the outside until a trusted manager on her team called her and said bluntly, “You’re changing.” Her normally supportive style had morphed into frantic control. A second manager followed up to say, “Your style works. Stay the course. We believe in you, in us, and the mission. Every one of us has your back. Just tell us what you need.”

It happens. Despite your plans, investment in people, and hard work, there are always times of stress. Circumstances change. Emergencies happen. An unforeseen ball is dropped. What now?

Karin and I were fortunate in these two situations. Our direct reports displayed incredible courage and compassion–for us. They chose the human-centered leadership that we’d let our stress undermine. They gave us an opportunity to course-correct.

(Something to remember the next time your manager is stressed and not leading the way you would hope. In those moments, you have an opportunity to lead up.)

Five Steps to Be a Human-Centered Leader Through Stress and Anxiety

1. Recognize what’s happening.

The meeting didn’t go well. The numbers didn’t come in the way you hoped. Your team member made a mistake. A competitor did something you never expected. One of your key partners just pulled out.

What do you feel? A tightness in your chest. Heat in your skin. A thin sheen of sweat. That’s your body acting like it’s under attack. It fires up the response systems before we know it. If you don’t recognize what’s happening those stress responses will short-circuit your human-centered leadership.

To maintain your human-centered leadership and reinforce the culture you’ve built, start by taking a few moments to acknowledge what’s happening. “My body is stressed. I’m feeling anxious. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to me, to my team, to this account.”

When you acknowledge your feelings and the stress response, it lessens their grip. You are less likely to snap at a team member when you are aware of your emotions.

(For more on how to check in with yourself and recognize what’s happening,  listen to Mastery Under Pressure expert Tina Greenbaum on the Leadership without Losing Your Soul Podcast.)

2. Remember your why.

Once you’re aware of what’s happening in your body and how you’re feeling, it’s time to check back in with your purpose. There’s a temptation in stressful moments to react–to do something, anything. But these reactive moments often do more harm than good because they aren’t connected to your purpose.

You’re not doing the work to get the numbers, the promotion, be the best, or look good to your neighbors (even though these are often the sources of our stress and anxiety). You do this work to make a difference to the people you serve. Your customers, clients, and team.

Get back to your big why. In this moment of stress, what is the difference you and your team make? How can you focus on making that difference right now?

3. Reassess what’s happening and your resources.

Now that you’ve acknowledged how you’re feeling and are connected back to your purpose, you’re likely feeling more grounded. You’re ready to take productive action.

This is the time to take a hard look at the facts. As you list the facts of the situation, examine them to make sure they are objective, observable reality and not your interpretation or fear. For example, “We’re getting crushed” is an interpretation. While “Our core offering is down 3% and our chief competitor is up 2%” is factual.

The next assessment involves risks and probabilities. What is at stake–again, factually? Try not to catastrophize–what will truly happen because of the situation you’re in? How big is the problem? What’s at stake if it’s not resolved? What are the probabilities of the worst coming to pass? What happens positively if you resolve it?

Once you’ve got a clear picture of the situation and the range of consequences, take a look at your assets. What resources can you bring together to address the issue? You often have many more assets available to help than you first think.

human-centered leader princess bride assets gif

(For more on taking stock of all your assets and overcoming adversity, check out retired Navy Seal Jason Redman’s episode of Leadership without Losing Your Soul.)

4. Reconnect with your team.Leadership development program

Speaking of assets, for any human-centered leader, one of your best assets is your team. Our teams brought Karin and me back to our human-centered leadership standards. Your team can help you solve the problem if you bring them in well. Give them the facts. What’s happening? What’s at stake? Give them all the information they need to understand the issue clearly. Describe what a successful solution will accomplish. What will success look like?

Depending on the situation, you can then ask for ideas or where people can help or delegate. Engage your team. Bring them in and help them understand what needs to happen. You don’t need to suffer or muscle through the problem on your own. Your people can surprise you with their ingenuity and effort if you give them the chance.

5. Respond.

You’ve centered yourself, connected back to your purpose, taken a clear look at the situation, and engaged your team. Now, it’s time to move. What’s your path forward? Take that next step clearly and confidently. If you get more information that changes your direction, that’s okay. (It’s okay to change your mind–just do it clearly and communicate the reasons.)

Your Turn

Even the most human-centered leader will feel stress and anxiety. When you feel that tension start to grip you, know that the human most in need of your leadership at that moment–is you.

I’d love to hear from you–what is your favorite way to maintain healthy and productive leadership when you start to feel the freakout?

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!


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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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