The decision to take a vacation, nap, or step away from your desk can be difficult for any busy executive to make. As responsibilities increase, so does the pressure to perform and the worry that comes with it. Though we live in modern times, our physical response to stress is prehistoric.
When our ancestors evolved the inborn stress response we still carry with us today, they were surviving on the Savannas of Africa, where threats were often a matter of life and death. As a result, we now live with what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” stress response. Since threats can have a greater impact on survival than opportunities, our brain is wired to quickly recognize and flag threatening experiences negatively in our memories. Consequently, when it comes to mood and memories, negative experiences are more salient than positive ones. Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the New York Times bestseller Hardwiring Happiness, refers to this phenomenon as the negativity bias and claims that it takes five positive interactions to psychologically undo one negative interaction.
Understanding the biological basis of our behavior can help us notice and cope with stress more skillfully. When we sense a threat, part of our brain called the amygdala acts like an alarm bell, initiating the “fight or flight” response. In this state, our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and we tend to become more reactive. As Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, explains in his article A Relaxed Mind is a Productive Mind,
“When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency, but in the worst scenario create an ongoing hazard for performance. In that case, attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand.”
Chronic stress leads to lowered mood, increased anxiety, disturbed nervous system functioning, and disrupted hormone balance. Under stress, we tend to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate our inner and outer resources. Moreover, we update these appraisals with information that confirms them and we ignore, devalue, alter, and augment information that doesn’t. Stress can narrow our focus, causing us to concentrate on ways to reduce the stress itself rather than tackling the tasks and goals we set out to accomplish. The more stressed we become, the more difficult it is to discern the root of the problem, creating a seemingly endless self-defeating cycle. Moreover, our stress response can spread from leadership to the rest of the team, known as mood contagion.
Mood contagion spreads in milliseconds, below conscious recognition, and it can have supportive or oppressive effects that spread throughout an entire organization. For example, if leaders laugh often, their behavior and attitude will rub off on the people around them, setting a relaxed tone and triggering similar behaviors among followers. Positive, prosocial behaviors create chemical connections between people, and shared behaviors and attitudes unify teams. Being in a good mood also helps people take in information more effectively and respond more creatively. By paying careful attention to these connections and responding skillfully, leaders’ behaviors and attitudes can directly impact their organization’s bottom line.
Since leaders tend to have the most power and influence in their organizations, they bear the greatest responsibility for knowing what they are feeling and managing the contagion they spread to others. Executive coaching can help busy executives understand themselves better and take steps to manage stressors and reduce anxiety. Moreover, spending time with a model of positive leadership provides an opportunity for us to experience, internalize, and ultimately emulate what we observe. Managing stress at the top can have far-reaching implications throughout the entire organization. With this in mind, leaders can benefit from practicing relaxation techniques and learning ways to manage the stress and anxiety they are burdened with.