Uncategorized October 24, 2011

Executive Resilience: Reducing the Stress for your Senior People

We are experiencing an unprecedented time at the moment. Although many of us have experienced a Recession before, there are other factors at play which compound the stress for individuals this time. Some of us are experiencing the impact of the recession on the countries we buy or sell to; those that produce our goods and services, and others are affected because their loved ones are made redundant so it is more difficult to focus solely on our own business and try to carry on regardless.

The economy is also going through a re-alignment where banks are less reliable in terms of their willingness to lend, and large institutions that we have known and had confidence in, are folding such as Woolworths and Wedgwood, household names we’ve seen for years. We cannot help but be aware of the impact of this time and our employees will be reading about it, viewing the changes on our high street, and experiencing difficulties that friends and family go through even if they’re lucky enough not to be directly affected themselves.

The representation of this in the media matters a great deal as a result. It is difficult if not impossible to shut off from the changes taking place and naive of us as businesses if we are not proactively seen to respond. Yet individuals markedly differ in their tolerance of the stress of this time and their personality and previous experience of stress makes a big difference to their approach. It is important to recognise therefore, how much employees will turn to their Bosses for leadership and guidance now, making it especially difficult for Chief Executives and their Directors to manage their own stress never mind that of their teams. If you are lucky enough to be thriving right now some of this may not be relevant to you but there are few of us who remain unaffected never-the-less. 

As such, developing some ability to withstand the exposure to stress over time can be hugely beneficial as this situation is unlikely to be short lived given the ebb and flow of the re-alignment process. It will take time for us to get the response we want from lenders and more time to restore our faith in a government (whoever they may be). We are also being called upon to renegotiate terms with our suppliers and this can have a huge effect on self-respect and self-belief. Terms that we once took for granted and which helped us succeed, are often being tightened still further, cutting down the time we’ve got to manufacture something or making forecasting sales increasingly important.

Executive Resilience matters because your workforce follows your lead. They need your enthusiasm and direction which is very difficult to do if you are experiencing stress yourself. So what can you do to try to hold them together, and hang in there for the future?
Here are some tips worth considering both for yourselves and for your senior people: -

1. Communicate to Others
Try to talk about what you’re going through but in a structured way that encourages and receives support. This may sound simple but so many of us are stoic and feel that revealing unhappiness or distress demonstrates weakness and a lack of ability to cope. In reality, dealing with your own stress and that of others can be overwhelming and draining. Talking about it practically releases the tension in your system, reduces the stress chemicals that build up over time, and increases your creativity and initiative, thereby helping your situation not revealing or weakening it. This might mean your own Vistage group (because they may have advice, prior experience and enthusiasm where your own initiative and problem solving may be tiring). Equally, get your teams to meet regularly especially at Executive level and allow if not actively encourage, conversations that discuss what people are feeling but with a view to supporting each other and problem solving it. There is enormous value not just in being supported by talking yourself but giving and advising to others. This maintains a sense of belief in yourself and shows how valuable your opinion can be. Encourage people to listen to each other but suggest and request that the downloading is limited so that people are not just feeding each others distress.

2. Concentrate on Solutions
This may seem obvious at this time but actually when under stress our problem solving and rational thought can run over-time exacerbating our anxiety and draining us still further. Our energy levels drop and our ability to sleep goes with it thereby developing in to a vicious circle. Focus your mind on ‘what can I do?’ or reach out for advice and ideas as mentioned above. It is part of the stress response to shut down the frontal cortex of the brain under the influence of adrenalin and Cortisol which risks making you feel inadequate at best and unable to cope at worst. In reality this is perfectly normal but may be experienced increasingly frequently if you are not getting enough rest.

 3. Decrease the Drama
There is a tendency both in the media and in our minds to scare ourselves with worst case scenarios, misery and distress. This creates anxiety and doubles the enormity of the situation thereby taking our perspective on a situation, and reducing our ability to handle it. The media have to report changes whether to keep us informed or to discuss and debate probable outcomes. If we spend all our time listening to this we can ‘feed’ on it and this leads to despair. If your business is going through difficulties it is critical to focus your energies on what you can do not on what might happen and what is being represented as likely to happen. Although it may be important to handle a fall-back strategy or face the worst, doing so all day and all the time will not help unless, and until, that is the reality of your situation. Your mind is a goal seeking mechanism and it will loop back to the same thoughts continuously unless you give it a solution to think about or force yourself to look at the possibility of finding a way through this. Talk to yourself sharply if you find your thoughts obsessing about sadness, difficulties or the issues at hand and encourage others to do the same. Tell them “let’s not dwell on what we can’t do but on what we can do and that way we stay focussed on answers and ideas”.

4. Watch for comparisons and our tendency to find fault with ourselves
I recently attended a Vistage meeting where one member was going through incredible difficulties but the rest of the members were not. Listening to the good news around the room must have made that one man wonder what was going on in his world that was so different and why he couldn’t make it happen the same! The truth was his business was incredibly different to the rest; he was not receiving the same support from his suppliers due to their own difficulties, was being pushed very hard, and consequently felt very tired and drained. Support was forthcoming from the group but it is our tendency to compare with others and find ourselves wanting that can do damage under those circumstances. We only have to watch a programme on television to see how critical people are of each other.  Indeed the reality TV shows positively encourage it because it supposedly makes good television viewing, but this is not what you want or need to do to yourself right now. Be very aware of your own self critical behaviour and stop yourself and others, whenever you can so that you look at your business and your circumstances in respective isolation. This way you stay neutral about it and gain some perspective on the issues rather than wondering what you might be doing that is wrong!

5. Spend time with positive people whenever you can
It is easy to get drawn in to negative conversations with negative people whose outlook on life might be very different from your own. Children are innocent and loving without any cares or negativity on the whole so spend time with your family; be careful about who you have round to socialise with, and positively seek out receptive and like-minded individuals. This is not to say that should someone be experiencing significant stress in your business that you avoid a conversation with them, far from it, but empathy in an appropriate situation is very different from being regaled with everyone’s woes. Even members of your extended family can ultimately be toxic to you if they fill you with anxiety or depressive thoughts. At this delicate time when we are all struggling to stay consistently positive it is worth being careful and choosy so that you do not feel resentful and negative about anything being asked of you.

 6. Sleep is still really important as a stress management tool
Being able to sleep deeply or staying asleep for several hours at a time is still the greatest and best stress management tool in your own kit box. We vastly under-estimate the value of sleep but equally when we are worried or troubled by things, sleep some times eludes us and we can become over-anxious about the lack of it. It is important not to overplay the importance of getting enough rest as anyone who’s had a newborn will know that short term sleep deprivation isn’t an unmanageable problem. However, consistent or long term deprivation can reduce effective decision making and significantly increase anxiety and dark thoughts. It may sound far fetched but there is a significant correlation between poor sleep and stress so it becomes a vicious circle as the more you have difficulty in sleeping, the more stressed you get and vice versa!

Getting better sleep is best achieved through simple but consistent habits that support this. Enough exercise; fresh air and general rest rather than being ‘full on’ 24/7, all help. Taking a supplement rather than a sleeping tablet is also a useful aid. There are two you can take without any side effects at all; the first is to increase your magnesium as this is a mineral we use in copious quantities when stressed. It’s easy to obtain from a practitioner such as myself and I buy it from Nutri (funnily enough, who are a Vistage member). Ultra Muscleze is magnesium in powder form and a teaspoon of it taken 20 minutes before bed in juice or water eases the tension from your muscles and aids restful sleep.

7. Don’t compare your past with the present
One of the things we all do is comparing our past with our present. Tending towards nostalgia in general, it’s easy for us to complain about everything from the weather and how it’s changed, to a time when we didn’t use our Blackberry, to a time when business was good before all this happened. The difficulty with this as an approach is that it becomes a habit to look backwards in time rather than forwards, thereby exacerbating our frustration at what we have to deal with or in the worst case, encouraging us not to face or accept it at all. As much as it can be reasonable for us to wish it otherwise, this situation is here and staying with us for a while. We have to face it and deal with it. Not doing so by comparing how things are with how they were stops us from being realistic or accepting. If dealing with the ‘now’ is especially painful then seek professional support or guidance from your Vistage Chair so that you can share your feelings and come to terms better with how things are within your business or the economy before better dealing with the outcome and results you want.

 In conclusion, it is possible to manage stress at this difficult time. It isn’t realistic to expect yourself or your teams to be positive all of the time but if you can manage their ‘lows’ by allowing them time to talk about it and encourage their ‘highs’ by supporting an effort to be selective about what they spend time focussing on, you can do a great deal to help them and yourself.

Good luck and best wishes,

Sue Firth
Business Psychologist and Vistage award winner

Sue Firth BSc, MSc is a Business Psychologist, and has been speaking to UK Vistage members for over 15 years. In that time Sue has consistently achieved high scores from members in her two topics: 'Taking the Stress out of Leadership', scoring 86% for content and 88% for delivery, and 'Leading & Managing Change', scoring 84% for content and delivery. Sue has recently been speaking to Vistage members in Florida.


Stress Expert, Behaviour Analyst and Author, Sue is a specialist in helping people manage stress. She is an international speaker and presenter and holds both a Batchelor of Science and a Masters degree. She is a member of the British Psychological Society, The International Stress Management Association (ISMA). She is founder of YourWhealth and has Consulting Rooms in Harley Street (Central London). She is a regular media contributor and has appeared on ITV This Morning and BBC Panorama.

To find out more about Sue Firth, or to book a speaker directly, please visit the Vistage Speaker Bureau

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