The Impact of Stress on Leadership

Stress

Harvard Business Review in its September 2009 edition has a sidebar on Stress. The full article is “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. It is worth a read as it describes the impact of stress on leadership.

When people are under stress, surges in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol strongly affect their reasoning and cognition. At low levels, cortisol facilitates thinking and other mental functions, so well-timed pressure to perform and targeted critiques of subordinates certainly have their place.

When a leader’s demands become too great for a subordinate to handle, however, soaring cortisol levels and and added hard kick of adrenaline can paralyse the mind’s critical abilities. Attention fixates on the threat from the boss rather than the work at hand; memory, planning and creativity og out the window. People fall back on old habits, no matter how unsuitable those are for addressing new challenges.

Poorly delivered criticism and displays of anger by leaders are common triggers of hormonal surges. In fact, when laboratory scientists want to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they simulate a job interview in which an applicant receives intense face-to-face criticism – an analogue of a boss’s tearing apart a subordinate’s performance. Researchers likewise find that when someone who is very important to a person expresses contempt or disgust towards them, their stress circuitry triggers an explosion of stress hormones and a spike in heart rate by 30 or 40 beats per minute. Then, because of the interpersonal dynamic of mirror neurons and oscillators, the tension spreads to other people. Before you know it, the destructive emotions have infected an entire group and inhibited its performance.

Leaders are themselves not immune to the contagion of stress. All the more reason that they should take the time to understand the biology of their emotions.

I recommend the full article – Daniel is the author of “Emotional Intelligence”, the now classic book that paved the way for recognising and understanding the role that (control of) our emotions play in work and in life.

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