Executive Education

What is your stress mindset?

By Dr Amy Iversen, executive coach and founder of The Iversen Practice
Executive Education
Published: 5 April 2018

Ask any high flyer at the top of their game and chances are they will all tell you that stress comes with the territory. The really successful ones will also tell you that they have developed techniques to control their reaction to stressful situations.

Having worked with leaders in politics, law and finance, I have identified that there are five common mindsets, which get in the way of success at times of high pressure. By identifying which category you may fall into, it is possible to increase your chance of taking control when the stakes are high and (re)wiring yourself for success.

1. The Squirrel
The Squirrel is a hoarder. They absorb stress from their surroundings and colleagues and pack it away for a rainy day – that mythical time when they can take it out, analyse it, and move on. The trouble is that that day never comes and instead they become increasingly burdened by the accumulated toxic waste of their high pressure daily lives. Eventually this begins to ‘poison’ them from the inside out, and may manifest itself as physical health problems (cardiovascular disease, IBS) or as mental distress (depression and anxiety).

The solution: Noticing the problem and getting insight into how hoarding makes things worse is the key; it’s a coping mechanism but not a good one. Hoarders need an outlet valve which they can operate on a daily basis. The simpler the technique, the better and more chance of it becoming habit. For some this may mean learning some basic mindful breathing techniques, for others creative visualisations (putting logs on the fire, melting icicles) may work best. Regular cardiovascular exercise, time with friends and family and an opportunity to analyse this pattern of behaviour with a coach will all be helpful.

2. The Dictator
When the Dictator is under stress they become super controlling of those around them including subordinates, colleagues, and family. Their delegation skills desert them and they begin to micromanage every aspect of their lives. They do this to feel more in control in response to a situation of high stress in which they are losing their grip. They mistakenly decide that tightening their grip on a situation will make them feel more in control. Unfortunately, their response has the exact opposite effect of what is intended. People around the Dictator become more distrustful and resentful, less engaged and more disruptive. This leads to more stress and so the cycle continues.

The solution: Again insight is the key. A coach can shine a light on the cycle which the Dictator has got themselves into, and with this insight, the spell can be broken. Experimenting with reducing controlling behaviour, reintroducing delegation skills which the Dictator has lost touch with, and rebuilding relationships with family, and colleagues are all important strategies.

3. The Displacer
The displacer pushes the stressful impulses to one side and replaces them with dysfunctional activities such as alcohol/drug misuse, use of sex workers, extra-marital affairs, or excessive exercise/food restriction. Not only does this add to the overall stress levels (for example the stress of managing an affair) but it also has a destructive element. It’s like hiding in plain sight as a cry for help.

The solution: The first step is to identify these behaviours and the effect that they are having on the individual’s life and that of their family, friends, work colleagues and business. Once motivation for change has been established, professional help can be sourced. Once the individual is in recovery, the underlying stressors can be identified and addressed.

4. The Abdicator
The Abdicator has had enough and everyone knows it. They systematically begin to disengage with all aspects of their life including family, work, health, hobbies, and community. They stop showing up for soccer practice, stop attending church, and spend their time in the evenings binge watching boxsets on their iPAD, or surfing the internet. At work they may seem self-absorbed, distant, even disinterested. They may fail to complete work assignments, or avoid and ignore emails, even important ones. At home, they are disengaged, distant, and absent. It is as if they can only find peace when they withdraw from the world around them. When challenged they may blame others for their failings – another coping mechanism which doesn’t work well in the long run.

The solution: The solution for the Abdicator is systematic re-engagement with what is important to them. An additional important part of managing this pattern of behaviour, is for the Abdicator to learn a variety of more adaptive ways of managing stress so that they don’t need to fall back into this pattern of disengagement at high pressure times.

5. The Workaholic
The workaholic manages stress by doing more in the hope that it will get them out of the stressful situation. Instead this pattern of overworking serves to increase the expectations of others and becomes exponentially more stressful to sustain. ‘If I spend all week in the office my colleagues will think that I am able and dedicated’. ‘If I do an all-nighter I will get myself out of this scrape and impress the Board’. Sometimes the culture of the organisation feeds into the paradigm by expecting people to work long hours on a regular basis. In the short term this may work and add value but by its very nature over the medium to long term this is unsustainable and leads to burn out. Especially when under stress, ‘rules for living’ such ‘I must be perfect at all times otherwise people will reject me’ come into play which feed into the need to work harder and harder.

Solution: Once you are on it, it is tough to jump off this hamster wheel. It takes perspective to see what is happening and courage to address it. Like elite sportsmen and women, leaders need to establish a pattern of work and recovery, which is viable in the longer term. It’s interesting that for athletes, recovery is non-contentious and indeed considered vital for high performance. The same is true for leaders in corporate life. ‘Running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace’ is not sustainable and will lead to burnout, disappointment, and ill-health. Addressing underlying perfectionist traits may also help the workaholic to avoid falling into the same traps gain, in high pressure situations.

Stress may be an unfortunate by-product of working life, but by examining your mindset and reaction to high-pressure situations, it is possible to rewire yourself for success.

For more information visit www.theiversenpractice.com