Gerard Penna* discusses how important it is for managers to prioritise themselves for the good of their teams.
Have you ever been instructed in a pre-flight safety briefing to “put on your own mask before attempting to help others?”
The same principle applies to prioritising your own wellbeing during stressful times.
Doing so helps you produce the kind of leadership that your team members need to be successful and sustainable, especially during prolonged periods of challenge and stress.
The best leadership
Dig into leadership research and you will find a consistent set of behaviours being reported that produce higher levels of engagement, performance, job satisfaction and psychological health and wellbeing amongst team members.
They typically include inquiry, listening, empathy, offering choice, encouraging self-initiation, seeking perspective, open communication and sharing perspective.
To produce these pro-team behaviours, a leader depends on the effective functioning of their prefrontal cortex (PFC).
This is the modern, most recently evolved part of the human brain.
It’s responsible for the executive functions – higher order thinking such as setting goals and focusing on their achievement, analysing and judgement, and exercising control over less helpful thoughts and emotional impulses.
These executive functions allow our leadership to be at its best – deliberate, intentional, self-aware and choiceful.
When our wellbeing is challenged by stressful conditions, changes in our body chemistry and brain functioning can impair the operation of our PFC and its executive functions.
Stress can also increase the activity of our survival brain (also referred to as the reptilian or rear brain), activating the amygdala, the small structure responsible for triggering our inbuilt fight-flight-freeze response.
Our survival brain triggers automatic, instantaneous and powerful reactions to situations and people, often accompanied by strong emotions such as frustration, anger, anxiety, and fear.
The survival brain is especially implicated in our responses to stressful conditions.
It evolved to ensure our safety and survival by taking over in unsafe and dangerous situations such as avoiding predators and fighting off assailants.
Whilst it evolved to be used in relatively short bursts, it has not adapted to the real and perceived dangers in our modern lives.
The constant demands of life, and stream of bad news delivered over our digital devices, simply amplifies the feeling of threat, and increases stress.
When our bodies and brains experience sustained stress, it can lead to changes in our chemistry and neurological functioning, negatively impacting mood, thinking and behaviour.
As a result, our survival reactions become even more easily triggered, frequent, and pronounced.
Many of these survival reactions produce leadership behaviours which are counter-productive to team member engagement, motivation and wellbeing.
These unhelpful reactive tendencies can include micro management, autocracy, perfectionism, blaming, over-criticising, withdrawal, distancing from others, risk aversion, indecisiveness, and more.
What’s more, when our survival brain encounters acutely stressful conditions, it causes the secretion of neuro chemicals that shut down the operation of our modern brain and its executive functions.
This mechanism allows the reactive survival brain to take greater control over the thoughts and actions of a leader, further limiting the likelihood of choiceful, conscious and intentional leadership.
Going into a dive
It’s also possible that a negative spiral, or ‘doom loop’, can form in the leader’s thinking and actions.
This happens when their brain drives unhelpful leadership responses that don’t fix the problems they encounter, but in fact create new ones.
For example, we know that stress negatively affects decisiveness.
Stressed leaders who then procrastinate and vacillate on key decisions just keep adding to their to-do lists, which in turn creates more stress as their list of unfinished work grows exponentially.
As another example, a stressed leader with impaired emotional regulation might react with anger or frustration to a team member making a mistake, which will erode trust and connection.
If the team member then becomes withdrawn and protective they are hardly likely to take the initiative to solve any other problems, let alone reveal them to the leader until it’s too late.
This simply adds to the compounding issues and problems the leader must address, causing even more stress.
Putting your mask on
The good news is that there are many strategies and techniques that leaders can use to respond to stressful conditions and maintain better psychological health, cognitive function and emotional control, which in turn facilitates better leadership.
Exercising regularly to burn off stress hormones, meditating to facilitate emotional equanimity, and breathing routines to return balance to your bodys’ stress response systems are just a few examples of techniques that can help leaders maintain their own wellbeing.
The resulting leadership behaviours are then more likely to be supportive and facilitative of team member wellbeing and sustainable performance.
When it comes to supporting your team through high-quality leadership in stressful times, put your own wellbeing mask on first before attempting to help others.
*Gerard Penna is a leadership advisor and coach to CEOs, boards, and senior leaders. He is the author of Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, host of the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast, and CEO and Founder of Xtraordinary Leaders; a training company deeply committed to lifting the bar on leadership and leadership development.