Leading in Stormy Weather

Posted Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ben Slade

In the early 1980s, the Bell Telephone Company was convicted of antitrust violations and broken up into several “Baby Bells.” Frequent reorganizations, constant rumors, and a lack of job security took a toll on the workforce. Many employees were overwhelmed by the stress. They experienced physical, mental, and emotional strain at work and at home. However, some employees emerged from the deregulation with an increased sense of energy and vitality. These hardy survivors proceeded to make meaningful contributions both inside the company and out. What distinguished the overachievers from the overwhelmed?

Prolonged or intense stress can put employees at increased risk of illness, marital problems, and reduced productivity. However, some individuals emerge from very stressful events relatively unscathed. Understanding stress vulnerability can help identify opportunities to create pathways to resilience.

One pathway to stress resilience is hardiness. Hardiness has three components: commitment, control, and challenge. Hardy individuals are committed to their organization, finding meaning and stimulation from the work that they do. They believe they can exert control on the world around them, and that their fate is not predetermined. Finally, they interpret difficult experiences as challenges that lead to growth and maturity, and are willing to persist in a difficult environment rather than flee for temporary comfort.

If you are a hardy leader, you will typically excel in stressful circumstances. Although you can sometimes reshape your environment to reduce this stress, you are often surrounded by challenges that are difficult or impossible to change. Your own responses will probably not change the technological limitations, economic recessions, or government regulations that boost your stress levels.

Hardiness is like a rain jacket, deflecting the rain without changing the intensity of the storm. You may not be able to control the environment, but a predisposition towards positive thinking and action can protect you from getting wet. By reframing hard times as an opportunity to excel and conquer, you actually boost your own resistance to stress.

As a leader, your hardiness may even be an umbrella for your team. This hardy leader influence is driven by social sense-making. You can increase your team’s stress resistance with your own behaviors and attitudes.

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their followers by reframing obstacles as opportunities. Often, you cannot eliminate stress in the workplace. Instead, you can reinterpret stressful circumstances as opportunities to excel. Emotions which can interfere with performance (such as anxiety) can be translated into excitement. When you motivate your team to commit to achievable goals, help them believe that they control their own destiny and demonstrate how obstacles are challenges instead of threats, you have extended your umbrella of hardiness. You bolster individual resilience and improve organizational performance in the face of uncertainty and change.

Do you interpret events in a hardy manner? Do you convey the right messages to your subordinates in the face of uncertainty? You can’t avoid the storms of change, but you can use commitment, control and challenge to help you and your team stay dry.

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