stress response

Lashing Out: How Your Stress Response Produces Bad Behavior (and How to Tame It)

Are you leaking stress? 

We’ve all been in rooms with people who seem needlessly angry, confrontational, or controlling. Or with people who are passive-aggressive, touchy, or easily offended.

These folks may not realize that they are stressed — but often these behaviors result from stress that hasn’t been properly managed.

That’s unfortunate for the individual — and even more unfortunate for the team.

This kind of reaction causes tension, hurt feelings, and miscommunications. And the negative effects can build over time, leading to team dysfunction and compromised projects.

Here’s how to deal with people who are leaking stress — and what to do if you think YOU might be mismanaging your own stress.

We Don’t Always Recognize Our Own Stress Responses

Ever feel yourself tensing up for a meeting? Bracing for a conversation to go wrong? Feeling anxious (or angry) about being left out of the loop? Anticipating the worst from your team and colleagues?

These are all signs of stress. You’re expecting something to go wrong — and sometimes, if you’re not conscious of the energy you bring to the situation — you actually cause things to go wrong.

With leaders and project managers, this reaction sometimes arises from worries about loss of control.

I occasionally work with a person like this. In meetings, he is often accusatory, believing that he has been left out of key conversations and decisions. He removed himself from the day to day details — as he should — and now feels out of the loop.

But rather than recognizing his own worries and modulating his behavior, he blames others for the fact that he feels left out.  He assumes that because he hasn’t been involved, the work hasn’t been completed or hasn’t been completed properly. 

This is stressful for him — and upsetting for those who work with him. His tone and behavior cause people to shut down, which impairs his team’s ability to execute successfully.

Effective Teams Depend on Trust

You can’t lead a team AND remain fully involved in every detail of the work. You must be able to delegate to others — and trust that they’ll execute well.

So if you find yourself feeling mistrustful, ask yourself why. 

Very often, your mistrust has nothing to do with how the current team is operating or how the current situation is unfolding. Rather, some aspect of the present situation is triggering something from your past. 

Building a cohesive team that works harmoniously requires intentional guidance and planning. We need to be able to monitor and moderate our own attitude, so that we’re showing up as the leader our team deserves. 

If you think you might be the one sending these negative vibes:

  • Start to become aware of what is triggering you. Pay attention to times when you feel upset, angry, agitated, or threatened — and notice what caused that reaction.
  • Rather than react immediately, pause and give yourself space to choose how you will respond to the trigger.
  • Make note of the event, and spend some time later reflecting on why this particular situation triggered your stress response. Explore what past experiences might be related.
  • Decide how you would like to show up for your team, and what action you will take the next time you feel triggered.
  • Rinse and repeat. Developing awareness and changing your instinctive responses takes practice — but it is a skill you can absolutely develop. 

And if you find yourself on the receiving end of someone else’s leaked stress:

  • Stay calm. Your stress will only feed the other person’s behavior, so keep your cool!
  • Don’t react or respond to needling comments, passive aggressive statements, or harsh tones. These behaviors are meant to provoke an emotional reaction. Don’t let them.
  • Focus on the substance of the complaint, and try to reason with them.
  • Pause the conversion, call for a break, or take the meeting offline, in order to give everyone time to cool off.
  • Follow up individually. Approach the person from a place of empathy, and offer support. (“Hey, are you okay? I noticed you seemed a bit stressed, so I wanted to check in and see if I could help…”) 

Acknowledging their feelings can help call attention to their behavior in a non-confrontational way — which may help the other person recognize how they are affecting others. 

One of the best — and often underappreciated — talents of good leaders is self-awareness. They’re able to table their instinctive reactions and choose a behavior that’s better suited to the moment. That means they’re less likely to lose their temper in the face of an error or setback, and they’re better positioned to help their team find and execute productive solutions.

Individuals like this also keep the lines of communication open on a team. Because team members don’t have to worry about unexpectedly provoking a stress reaction, they are free to experiment, take chances, and propose new ideas and better ways of operating. 

That’s what makes managing your own stress response — and trying to intervene when others behave badly  —  well worth the effort. The more emotional awareness demonstrated by team members, the  more effective and respectful the work environment becomes.

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2 Comments. Leave new

Gerard Begley
July 26, 2021 9:09 am

Indeed. We’ve all been in meetings where we feel that we – or our team – are under attack or not treated fairly. And we’ve probably all been at the opposite side, too. Responding to a perceived threat or disrespect by losing your temper is not going to solve anything. The best leaders I’ve worked with are always able to show empathy, building bridges and using challenging situations to strengthen relationships. But such leaders are rare. What do these leaders do? They look at the situation rather than the personalities, they show that they are willing to listen, and they don’t escalate.

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