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5 Brain-Friendly Rules to Reduce OR Eliminate Stress for Busy Leaders (& Teams)

By Christina Haxton (1404 words)
Posted in Management on February 18, 2013

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By Christina Haxton, Speaker, Author & Executive Coach, Sustainable Leadership, Inc.

Almost 48% of newly hired or recently promoted executives get fired or quit within the first 18 months on the job.  You worked hard to climb the corporate ladder and your efforts have finally paid off.  The climb up may have been slow, but the fall down will be swift and could be very noisy.


You, too, could be missing the signs of a headlong fall back down the ladder.  It won’t be because you lack the technical skills to do your job.  Instead, your downhill slide will be caused by failure to recognize and address the undercurrent of stress that bombards you throughout your day.


Stress:  The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Not all stress is bad.  In fact, stress is a necessary ingredient (in addition to dopamine, or the brain chemical of “interest” or engagement) to achieve the state of “flow” or peak performance.  However, too much stress results in anxiety, overwhelm and disorganized thinking.  Not a friendly state for your PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) to do its best work.  Over time, chronic stress has been connected to permanent mental and physical dis-ease (high blood pressure, immune system disorders, depression, panic disorder are only a few). 


And, if you are a leader in your organization, you are also likely to experience “Power Stress” a type of stress experienced by leaders who are responsible for the well-being of others, like your team, your employees and their families.


If you are paid to think, your brain is your biggest asset, along with a properly functioning PFC.  Chronic stress, or failure to manage or eliminate unnecessary stress leads to poor functioning of your PFC (which lies behind your forehead in a thin sheet, about six business cards thick), leaving you terribly inefficient and fairly powerless. 

That's because Executive thinking happens in the PFC, including your ability to:

  • Inhibit information or avoid distractions
  • Decide or make decisions quickly
  • Reason or compare two ideas
  • Understand or comprehend information or another person’s perspective
  • Memorize or learn new information


Too much, or chronic stress has a negative impact on the fragile state of your Pre-Frontal Cortex.  Your leadership effectiveness will suffer due to feeling overwhelmed, easily distracted, short-tempered and irritable, leaving you unable to:

  • Make good decisions quickly
  • Find solutions to problems
  • Prioritize
  • Use your intuition to “trust your gut”
  • Connect with and accurately “read” your team (emotional intelligence)
  • And more!


To make matters worse, emotions are contagious.  Think of emotion as e-motion, or energy in motion.  If you pay others to think and to be creative, innovative, inspired and self-directed, but then ignore the signs of stress in not only yourself, but also in your team members, you can pretty much watch your career go down in flames.    


So what does this mean for you?  If part of your personal Leadership Development Strategy already includes goals, strategies and action steps to effectively manage stress for yourself and your team, you can stop reading here.  Good for you! Otherwise, here are…


5 Brain-Friendly Rules to Reduce or Eliminate Stress for Busy Leaders (& Your Team):

1.    Limit Distractions & Eliminate Interruptions

  • Avoid doing brain-draining tasks, like responding to email, throughout the day.
  • Pretend you are inside “The Cone of Silence”: put a sign on your door “I’ll be available at 2:00 PM – if it’s a true emergency, call me at 202-555-1212).
  • Switch off all electronics alerts & notifications when you are completing a task involving heavy duty thinking.
  • Avoid multitasking – First of all, there’s no such thing.  Our brain cannot “do two things at once” it actually switches attention back and forth between two tasks.  Secondly, you will make fewer mistakes and take half the time to complete the task if you just did one thing at a time.  Try it sometime!


2.    Recharge Your Batteries

  • Your thinking brain is powered by “rechargeable batteries” not 220 like you think.  It needs frequent recharging to be on top of the game.  Recharge your PFC by giving it a break and using a different part of your brain for a few minutes.  Schedule time and set an alarm so you can do a mindless physical activity for 5 minutes such as juggling, walking or stretching, socializing or playing Angry Birds. 


3.    Get Everything Out of Your Head

  • David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” said “Our brain is not designed to hold ideas, it is designed to have ideas.”  Holding all of your thoughts and problems in your head takes up the very limited brain space in your PFC.  You must create space to have new ideas or recognize solutions when they present themselves. 
  • Use a mind map program on your computer, post it notes, a white board or a pencil and paper.  PS.  While making a list is better than trying to remember everything, it can actually generate stress unless done correctly!


4.    Prioritize Prioritizing

  • Indecision causes its own type of stress.  Often we have to decide something before something else can be decided, so we don’t really have an indecision problem, you have a sequence problem.  Feeling indecisive?  Ask yourself, “What needs to be decided?”  or “Can I do that now?  If not, what needs to happen in order for that to happen?”  Being willing to delegate tasks to others is critical.


5.    Stop Stress From Spreading

  • Emotions are actually contagious brain to brain and person to person.  Mirror neurons in our brain act like antennae and readily pick up emotions such as frustration, anger, irritability … and stress.  To make matters worse, when we are under stress, we are more likely to misinterpret the emotions of others, usually toward the negative.  The bottom line is when there is an undercurrent of stress from a person on your team or from you, it is felt and it is not only distracting, but it limits creativity, erodes trust and has a negative impact on your bottom line. 
  • Engage a coach or mentor to learn to effectively manage your emotions and strengthen your social and emotional intelligence “muscle”; you will be a much more effective leader, both inside and out. 
  • Don’t keep holding onto negative team members. Address the behavior of any Drama Kings or Queens on your team in order to keep them from infecting your healthy team members or their negativity will spread like cancer, so cut out the cancer quickly.


Congratulations on your leadership success!  You can continue to climb up the ladder or enjoy the scenery where you are now.  The bottom line is that exceptional, sustainable leaders are built from the inside out and then from the outside in with the help of your team.  Don’t let stress be the “elephant in the room.”   Acknowledge, address, eliminate, reduce or leverage stress before you become a statistic!


{#/pub/images/Christina_Haxton.jpg}Written by Christina Haxton, MA LMFT
Speaker, Author & Executive Coach, Sustainable Leadership, Inc.
Co-author, The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a leadership revolution one person at a time.  Christina assists entrepreneurs, managers and executives how to quickly build trust with their team and feel happier, highly successful and satisfied in their leadership role. Her clients learn how to use  neuroscience of emotional intelligence to make powerful team connections to become successful leaders, to achieve extraordinary peace of mind, begin to really love what they do again and have fun in the process!


Do you have a question for Christina?  Post it in our Senior Manager Community and she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert



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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:

How to Manage Team Conflict

Complacency in the Workplace

Work Efficiency Equation For Managers And High Performers

Four Steps To A Work/Life Balance Without Sacrificing Success

Four Simple Steps to Workplace RedemptionDon’t Forget to Delegate!


ManagingAmericans.com is a community of Business Professionals & Expert Consultants sharing knowledge, success tips and solutions to common job issues.  Our objective is to mentor and develop professionals to be better leaders, managers, team players and individual contributors. Ultimately, helping people succeed in their careers.  

Comments (5)

Angela Giles posted on: February 20, 2013

So true! I used to avoid stress and it just made it worse.

Sally Gould posted on: February 20, 2013

Funny story - as with most fundraisers - we are a (usually happily) stressed group of folks. Last year I was turned away from a Stress Reduction Workshop because my stress was making me 'too depressed'. And here I knew my stress was making me depressed so I was trying to address it - go figure. I just pulled a Scarlett O'Hara "fiddle-dee-dee, I'll think about that tomorrow" and moved on.

Christine Hilbert posted on: February 20, 2013

Great article.

Bonnie Mann posted on: February 20, 2013

My first stress management technique is to make sure that the only stress I'm feeling is mine and not the stress of those around me.

Second stress is contagious. How you handle stress will be reflected by your team. If you freak out; they will freak out. But if you can at least appear calm even when they know you are stressed they will experience much less stress themselves.

Finally, find a way not to take it home with you. I find that occupying my mind with something else on the way home can help me shed work stress before I get home.

Home stress is a whole other topic but doing the above with home stress as well helps me to at least separate them.

Heather Stone posted on: March 3, 2013

Hi Christina,
It's important to limit distractions and eliminate interruptions from your work environment, but too often this is seen only from the standpoint of maintaining productivity. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. A distracting work environment isn't just bad for productivity. It's hard on your state of mind too. Thanks to Dan for sharing this with the BizSugar community.

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