A common interview question is how do you deal with stress. If you are not interviewing for a leadership position, this question means that if the heat gets turned up in a situation are you going to make everyone around you miserable or can you deal with it appropriately. If you are interviewing for a leadership role, this questions means can you keep your cool so you do not damage relationships with peers, don’t lose credibility, or don’t lose the trust of your team. We all deal with stress differently. Some get loud, some clam up, but most push through somehow with the best defense mechanisms we can. As a leader, dealing with stress comes often and most times without warning. Breaking down how to think about stress can help us ensure that we are prepared for it and not only that, use it to make our teams better!
Stress comes related to our past, our current situation or our future. That is it, there is no other way it comes. If we know this about stress then we can prepare for it no matter when it comes. Let’s start with the past. Some people feel stressed when thinking about things that happened in the past. To clear things up, let’s admit that you might feel stress in the present but it is not related to anything happening in the present, but in the past. When I got my first job in a large hospital system I was manager of all things related to the 6,000 desktop computers in the hospital. Two weeks before a major system go live at one of the hospitals one of my team members made a global change in what he thought was a test environment. Well, it wasn’t, it was live. He essentially shut out everyone’s ability to access their “C” drive. That means that no one could use the operating system (Windows) or any applications on the computer. Kind of tough to take a system live without the ability for anyone to use the computer. After 36 straight hours on the phone with Microsoft we had a makeshift solution and get things working again. To this day when we do updates like this to the desktop computer environment, I think about what happened. For the first few years after that happened, every update we did was misery. I fretted badly and my team walked on pins and needles, not comfortable at all. I spoke to a few close friends about this and we ended up coming to the conclusion that I had to forgive. Not forgive and forget as the old saying goes, but really forgive. I had to forgive the person who made the mistake, but most importantly, I had to forgive myself. Forgiveness plays a huge role in reducing the stress of your past, personal or professional. If you stress about the past, look at what or who needs to be forgiven including yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t absolve behavior, it just doesn’t let that behavior hold you captive any more.
Stress of the present is easier to deal with from my perspective. IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU! That usually helps me a lot. If I can remember that for the most part any stress I am feeling about a situation is not personal to me then I can regain objectivity and sanity and move forward without losing credibility or trust. Let’s say for a second that it is about you. You said something or did something unintentionally that really hurt someone or ended up being a costly mistake and the heat is on you in the moment. In that moment, your sincere commitment to making it right can make all the difference. Staying and dealing with the situation all the way to its resolution can actually gain you credibility and trust in the long run. People will see that even in the midst of personal failure you are committed and that goes a long way.
The final way stress will hit us is in preparing for or thinking about the future. Long term vision is the only thing that helps with this. For me, this is where stress hits me the worst and I have challenges at time dealing with it. When stress of the future hits me, it almost always requires a long lunch or breakfast with a close friend. I need to be reminded of the big picture. Stress of the future is usually related to either romance or finance. A wise old man once told me that and so far he has proven himself right. For the purposes of this blog, we will stick with finances. This can manifest itself in many ways. Job security, paying for college for yourself or your children, saving for vacation, debt, project over runs, the list goes on and on. Having a long term plan for these areas of life is essential. Looking over the horizon on a timeline that is further than how far I am looking at stress brings me back. This is the importance of being missional. Having a mission, a big picture, a ‘why are we doing this’ thought to fall back on is essential in dealing with stress of the future. If your ‘why are we doing this’ is not big enough, then stress will stop the initiative in its tracks. You will become overwhelmed by the unknowns of the future and eventually give up on whatever it is. When I have lunch with a friend, we review exactly that, why am I doing this to begin with? I need to know in my heart that this is important. Once I am reminded of that, I look to my past. I have never missed a meal or mortgage payment. So regardless of what happens, most likely I will have a roof and a meal, the essentials of life. I work my way back from there and usually whatever was so bleak suddenly becomes just another situation I need to walk through and learn from.
Stress is a very serious thing and is rightly asked about on interviews. Forgiveness, trying not to take it personally, and being missional and reminding yourself of that mission are keys to dealing with stress of the past, present, and future. Remember, as you lead yourself through stress, you are also leading others and training them on how to deal with stress. This is the blessing and the curse of leadership. Stress can be very tough, but it can also be another opportunity to be intentional about the environment you want to create both at home and at work.