Personal Governance 5: Pressure and Stress, Coping and Coaching

The CEO of a leading airline is hospitalized following a heart attack. The CEO of a global auto manufacturer collapses on stage after a “period of extensive travel.” And as a Canadian pharmaceuticals major faces criticism from lawmakers and two federal probes, its CEO is hospitalized with pneumonia. All three executives were aged under 60. And all three incidents occurred in the space of a year.

Personal Governance 5

Switzerland alone has seen five suicides of senior executives at major companies in the last decade. In May 2016, the former Chief Executive of Zürich Insurance killed himself at the age of 59, just months after his resignation.

But senior executives get very little sympathy for personal stress. When in 2011 the embattled CEO of Lloyds Banking Group took time out due to fatigue, the British newspaper The Guardian cited a poll on its website with 54% of respondents saying the Lloyds boss was “paid well enough to take it.” If studies have mainly focussed on the woes of lower grade employees with little control over events, attention is slowly shifting to leaders. After all, they are entrusted with the sustainability of the systems in which all employees should flourish. Their health, and corresponding ability to take wise decisions, is no luxury. And CEO stress can have a ripple effect. In a landmark trial, February 2019 saw the CEO of France Telecom (now Orange) convicted for moral harassment after a series of employee suicides.

Managers with good Personal Governance know and recognize their stressors. They can tell what is the right workload - for themselves and for others. 

Anxious Leaders Are Risk-Averse Leaders

A 2015 study from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana found that “anxious executives take fewer strategic risks, especially when things are going well”. The researchers detected “a pattern through which anxiety causes top executives to avoid potential threats.”

Leaders Lack Sources of Renewal, and Fail to Provide Them

An 2014 study found that whilst 79% of executives recognized the importance of renewal, only 35% said their firms had supportive programs. Only 50% encouraged renewal activities among their staff.

Managing Stress is About Striking a Balance and Staying Vigilant

The right workload, or ‘personally-manageable average’ means that our proportion of salutogenesis-related (health-promoting) factors is significantly higher than the pathogenic (disease-causing) ones. For good Personal Governance we need to be alert to the latter, to avoid progressing from a resigned state of work dissatisfaction to a state of chronic stress.

Managing Our Resources is a Top Priority

Leaders must treat human resources with as much care and forethought as financial ones, and avoid thoughtlessly exhausting employees with an overload of ‘investment-focussed demands.’ Activities with a high, energizing ‘flow’ quota are an ideal focus for our resources. Unfortunately, in today’s workplace of multi-tasking and constant e-distractions, it can be difficult to find flow. Still, it’s essential to recognize the resources we devote to constructive activities versus demanding ones, strike a balance and achieve a strong ‘sense of coherence’ (SOC). SOC helps us answer three critical questions: “why should I do this? Is it manageable for me? Does it make sense to me?”

The Pain Threshold Has a Domino Effect

For senior managers, the ability to put up with an untenable workload (crippling agendas, workloads, long working hours and heavy responsibilities), has a paradoxically infectious appeal. To belong to the club, it feels like a good idea to follow suit. But the effect is also cascading downward to junior functions. Their reward systems are engineered more around functional goals than workloads, creating an unfair exchange. When the right workload is exceeded time and time again, distress results.

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Drawing up a ‘Personal Stress Inventory’ can help us identify our stressors, and foresee which of these risk bundling and harming our sense of coherence, and ultimately, our health. Even positive stressors (eustressors) can cause distress, if they start to accumulate.

From chronic stressors, to stressful life events, a host of Apps now enable us to assess our stress. For a research-based approach, we recommend a tour of the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Salutogenesis is a Holistic Approach to Life

Because both health and illness factors are a natural part of life, the ‘salutogenesis’ concept recommends that we discount a one-sided focus on deficits. Instead, we should look at moving in the direction of wellbeing along a ‘health-illness’ continuum, using our coping resources in the best way possible.

Increasing the ‘manageability’ of our stressors will promote our SOC; our confidence that that things will work out as well as we can reasonably expect. In the same vein, Personal Governance is designed to enhance our ‘positive inner attitude’ regarding stressors and challenges.

We Need to Cope Better With Coping

Leaders need to design coping strategies in 3 main areas. First, mastering professional situations and action planning. Second, in our personal relationships with third parties, and third, our relationship with ourselves and the clarification of our role. Assessing our stressors and the ways in which we react to them, working on our SOC, will give us a more agile range of coping strategies. Cultivating a palette of private activities and ‘passivities’ and practicing them regularly is key. Why? You can’t jog with a knee injury, but you can still recharge your batteries by playing guitar.

Leaders Must Learn to Share Problems

Leaders have no trouble engaging consultants to address organizational issues. They can share problems, to a point, with colleagues who are involved. But many also feel they must be on top of everything, and are inhibited by fears of not being good enough, or of losing control. So leaders feel less able to proactively engage an executive coach to accompany them in painful situations. Instead, they wait for crisis point. Leaders with good Personal Governance are enthusiastic coachees. They relish self-reflection, know their limits, and have a strong sense of coherence. With their coach close to hand, they have learnt to work with this trusted advisor in a way that is not only effective, but preventative.

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