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A Manager’s Guide to Navigating High-Stress Times

This is an article I wrote some time ago to offer leaders guidance for dealing with others during times of high-stress. Given current events and the unprecedented anxiety facing employees today, I’d like to offer it again in the hope that it offers leaders some tangible behaviors and strategies for connecting with others during these challenging times. 

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Whether it’s a merger, an acquisition, a reorganization, downsizing, a new product launch or political turmoil, there will always be periods of time during which employees experience elevated levels of stress. And as much as we’d like to invoke the old ‘leave it at the door’ mentality, it simply isn’t realistic or viable given today’s workforce.

During these high-stress periods, what leaders choose to do can have far-reaching effects beyond simply helping employees focus on the work at hand. Supporting others as they process anxiety creates a very human connection. It builds trust, elevates engagement, and inspires greater levels of loyalty.

Providing support during high-stress times is the right thing to do…. for individuals and for the business.

But, how can busy managers add this to their already overflowing platters of priorities—and do it without turning the workplace into a therapy couch? Effective leaders take these small steps that have a big impact on others.

Share your observations. Looking the other way and pretending that something’s not happening doesn’t make it go away; it makes you look clueless. Instead, if you see something, say something… as a way to open the door to dialogue.

Examples: “I can’t help but notice that there’s been a lot of chatter about this change recently” or “It seems like you might be a little distracted these days.”

Check in with others. Find ways—right within the workflow—to touch base with your team. But don’t expect that simply asking how someone is doing will be enough. Perfunctory, polite conversational norms will likely trigger a reflexive response like, “fine thanks… how about you?” Bring intention, authenticity and genuine curiosity to the question. Concentrate fully on the other person. Make eye contact. And, consider framing the question to provide greater context.

Example: “A lot has been going on around her recently and it might be disorienting. How are you doing with all of this?”

Listen hard and holistically. If you’re effective at checking in and connecting with others, you just might be rewarded with some important information from the other person… but only if you are really listening. Pay complete attention. Listen not just to what’s said, but what’s not said. Watch for non-verbal cues. Be completely present and express appreciation for whatever the other person is willing to share.

Tell the truth as you know it. Depending upon the circumstances, there may be information you can’t share. But challenge yourself to be as forthright and transparent as possible. In the absence of information, people will invent details. And when appropriate, share your own reactions too. Demonstrating that you’re confused, concerned, or sad makes you more human—a quality employees crave in a leader.

Help others determine the steps they need to take to move forward. You can rarely remove the sources of stress employees might be encountering; but you can support them in determining what they need to do for themselves. Facilitate a conversation, asking focused questions. Help the employee sort through options and determine his/her best course of action. And offer your ongoing support.

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