The decision to take a vacation, nap, or step away from your desk can be difficult for any busy executive to make. As responsibilities increase, so does the pressure to perform and the worry that comes with it. Though we live in modern times, our physical response to stress is prehistoric.
When our ancestors evolved the inborn stress response we still harbor today, they were surviving on the Savannas of Africa, where threats were often a matter of life and death. As a result, we now live with what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” stress response. Since threats on the Savanna posed a greater risk to survival than opportunities, our brain is wired to quickly recognize and flag threatening experiences negatively. Consequently, negative experiences tend to be more salient in memory and easier to recall than positive ones. Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the New York Times bestseller Hardwiring Happiness, calls this phenomenon the negativity bias. According to Dr. Hanson, it takes five positive interactions to psychologically undo one negative interaction.
Understanding the biological basis of our behavior can help us notice and cope with stress more skillfully. When we sense a threat, part of our brain called the amygdala acts like an alarm bell, initiating the “fight or flight” response. In this state, our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and we become more reactive. As Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, explains in his article A Relaxed Mind is a Productive Mind:
“When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency, but in the worst scenario create an ongoing hazard for performance. In that case, attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand.”
Chronic stress leads to lowered mood, increased anxiety, disturbed nervous system functioning, and disrupted hormone balance. Under stress, we tend to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate our inner and outer resources. We update these appraisals with information that confirms them and we ignore, devalue, alter, and augment information that doesn’t. Stress can narrow our focus and derail us from reaching our goals. We begin searching for ways to reduce the stress itself rather than tackling the tasks we originally set out to accomplish. The more stressed we become, the more difficult it is to discern the root of the problem, creating a seemingly endless, self-defeating cycle. Worse yet, this stress response can spread from leadership to the rest of the team, known as mood contagion.
Mood contagion spreads in milliseconds, below conscious awareness, and it can have supportive or oppressive effects throughout an entire organization. For example, if a leader smiles often and shows signs of contentment, the organization will have a more relaxed and easy-going tone. The leader’s actions rub off on others, triggering similar behaviors among followers. Positive interactions create chemical bonds between people and shared behaviors and experiences unify teams. Moreover, being in a good mood helps people absorb information more effectively and respond more creatively. By paying close attention to these interconnections and managing them carefully, leaders can directly impact their team’s productivity and their organization’s bottom line.
Since leaders tend to have the most power and influence in their organizations, they have the greatest responsibility for knowing what they are feeling and managing the contagion they spread to others. Executive coaching can help busy executives identify triggers and take steps to manage stressors and reduce anxiety. Moreover, spending time with a model of positive leadership provides an opportunity for us to experience, internalize, and ultimately emulate what we observe. Managing stress at the top can have far-reaching implications throughout the entire organization. With this in mind, leaders can benefit from practicing relaxation techniques and learning ways to manage the stress and anxiety they are burdened with.