When your organization is under a great deal of stress, many employees have a tendency to dig in their heels and keep their heads down. If they withdraw and focus on the task at hand, they feel the stressful season might pass with less angst. This is exactly the moment when leaders have their greatest opportunity to influence people in a positive way. In fact, this is the most important role leaders serve.
Kevin Kruse, CEO of LEADx and author of Great Leaders Have No Rules, interviewed me about this topic for Forbes. I told him that stress is caused by uncertainty, and uncertainty is unsettling for everyone. This is a signal for leaders to act. There is a phenomenon called emotional similarity that diminishes the stress we experience. When two or more people feel stress and share their emotions with each other, these interactions translate into less anxiety.
When my son was fourteen years old, he convinced me to go paragliding on a family vacation. He couldn’t have been more excited. In contrast, I was dreading the thought of running toward the cliff’s edge and hoping the updraft would lift us into the sky. You could say I was feeling everything but emotional similarity. It would have been incredibly helpful to have had someone with us who shared my fear of heights.
Praising “unicorns” in the business world has captured our attention lately, yet this is a case where success is rooted in revealing our similarities.
USC Marshall School of Business professor Sarah Townsend led a study that explored this idea. The study revealed that “sharing a threatening situation with a person who is in a similar emotional state, in terms of her overall emotional profile, buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that typically accompany threat.”
The question becomes how do we help coworkers experience emotional similarity? Therein lies the incredible opportunity for leaders to create a shared experience among employees. Consider these communication strategies as you navigate your way forward through a stressful time:
Convey your feelings
Share your own hopes and concerns (within reason) about the situation so your employees feel permission to do the same with each other. This sets the tone for emotional similarity and mutual support within the ranks. When employees see you confiding in them about a given situation, they feel bolstered by a feeling of solidarity.
Employees might be filtering your message through a wide variety of emotions, so keep in mind that what you say needs to be specific. Having been on the delivery side of communication, I can say that providing as much detail as possible builds trust. Employees know you can’t share everything, but if they get a sense you’re trying to share as much as possible, it goes a long way toward providing reassurance.
Ban the bus
Stressful situations often have many moving parts, and everyone has a role to play. Avoid throwing anyone under the bus. Blame doesn’t do anyone any good. Instead, use this opportunity to focus the team’s energy on corrective measures and the positive. Show your leadership character by emphasizing what’s possible rather than obsessing about what went wrong.
Praising “unicorns” in the business world has captured our attention lately, yet this is a case where success is rooted in revealing our similarities. When leaders draw our attention to the commonality we might share in a stressful situation, they’re giving us a sense of strength in numbers. The next time you find yourself preparing for or in the midst of a high-anxiety situation, ask yourself who might be experiencing the same mindset. Chances are you have plenty of company.