In tough situations, our strengths have the tendency to become our weaknesses. Under stress, a natural and healthy tendency toward neatness and organization can turn compulsive. Smart people with great questions can become ruthless interrogators. Those who take pride in their laser-like focus can become too micro and miss the big picture.
When handled improperly, stress acts like kryptonite. It causes our superpowers to turn against us, and, if we're not careful, they can even defeat us. While we can't avoid stress, we can calibrate our reaction to it.
Here are a few insights on responding from a place of strength.
1. Create a procedure
Under stress, we often make decisions more quickly and with less information—a perfect storm for a disaster. The best way to avoid this trigger response is to have a procedure in place—one that forces you to walk through the steps and get the information you need prior to taking action.
Great development and technology teams have an "emergency sheet" that explains what to do if the website or system goes down. Step by step, this procedure prevents brash decisions and ill-conceived solutions to the problem. The trick is to learn from mistakes made under stress and, afterwards, develop a procedure to follow the next time around.
2. Stay open to the resources around you
For good reason, stress makes you defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness makes you less open and alert to the resources and information around you. When I get stressed, I instinctively become more self-reliant. Perhaps it's my fear of failure that makes me put my head down and try to solve things all by myself?
Ironically, at the times when it's most important for us to consult our colleagues and absorb the opinions of others, we're inclined to isolate ourselves. To offset this tendency, I take special efforts to engage people around me in times of stress.
3. Don't regress when you stress
Stress is a consequence of our struggle against our primal tendencies. The instinct to run away from danger or hide from a predator is most definitely in our ancestral DNA—what Seth Godin calls our "lizard brain." We need to catch ourselves, and we need to keep evolving.
I have always believed that great leadership requires multiple personal transformations. As your team grows, the market changes, and the stakes get higher, you need to keep up with the pace of change. With more and more responsibility, you need to reach a new level of self-awareness and continuous improvement in how you manage yourself and others under stress.
For better or worse, the most critical decisions are often made during the most challenging times.