You’re The Boss, Stressed, And At Work—How Best To Manage This?


BEING STRESSED AT WORK, because of work, is such a massive source of pain in the lives of so many of us that it’s even come to the point where you’re reading posts such as this one…

I know, a sure sign of desperate times.

Feeling stretched at work is like being a parent at home; any limits we impose are going to be tested, and sometimes won’t hold up.

It’s all part of the deal.

And yet those of us in leadership roles have an even harder time of it because we are being observed. Our stresses and upsets are not only seen, they have an impact upon those we work with.

How should we best manage this responsibility?

A Case In Point

A couple of weeks ago I was running a session for the leadership team of a local startup. The topic was accountability and we were doing a group feedback exercise. Guaranteed juicy stuff.

One reflection given the CEO—we’ll call her Joan—had to do with what it was like for others of that team, and in the organization as a whole, to be around her when she was clearly worn-out due to a recent push to deliver on something or was just as clearly upset and burdened by something happening at home.

The feedback amounted to: “I can deal with you when you are like that, but others on the team are more (negatively) impacted and get bummed-out like you are. You need to be more careful about the impact you’re having at those times.”

Valuable data to have received, for sure. And yet I was worried – l didn’t want Joan to go down the same road, a dead-end, as a previous leader I had worked with years prior…

Cautionary Tale

Many moons ago I had fallen into the role of mentoring the Exec. Director of a local nonprofit; Andy was a trained administrator but relatively new to leadership. He was a ‘battlefield promotion’ at a time when the organization came super close to folding. His first task was to save it and his second was to rehab. the staff, as they had been through hell.

The problem was that Andy’s job was functionally impossible – too little revenue, with immature administrative practices, significant infrastructure upgrades needed and, as is so often the case, the admin. department was understaffed.

Andy was, by any definition, stressed, and that feeling seemingly had every reason to be hanging around for a good while to come. So it did, becoming chronic and self-fulfilling. ‘Desperation is a stinky cologne’ and a terrible place to fundraise from.

Andy’s decision was to protect his staff from knowing how he was feeling because he didn’t want to scare them. They should think everything is fine so as to focus on their jobs. Andy saw his emotional state as a distraction so he assumed a façade and only let-on how he really felt to one colleague, and me.

Nevertheless, everyone knew, of course. In fact, I was thanked by staff for helping out because Andy was so much easier to work with as a result. His hiding was fooling no one.

Hiding – inauthenticity – is both a habit and a lie, and becomes a trend that is very hard to turnaround. Andy isolated himself, becoming increasingly critical of his staff and they of him, effectively killing off the collaborative spirit between his office and the remainder of the organization.

Under these conditions recovery from anything becomes very difficult. The organization limped along until his depression required of him that he leave. In the intervening years since, this nonprofit has flourished under the leadership of someone who has been able to rally the staff to take collective responsibility for everyone’s success and stress. They are a team again.

I learned that leadership can’t effectively hide, that our colleagues will always ‘feel us’ regardless, and that everyone on board needs to be part of any solution. The alternative is exhausting…

“To an extent that we ourselves are only beginning to appreciate, most people at work, even in high-performing organizations, divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today.”

—Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey

So, you’re the boss and you are – for whatever reasons, be they personal, professional, or more likely: a combo – struggling, while at work.

What are the best ways to manage your staff and organization while feeling less than chipper?

Contagion or Role-model?

If you want to go quickly, go alone,
If you want to go far, go together.

—African Proverb

When we are in the grips of some ’emotional weather’ – downpour, hailstorm, or a light dusting of snow, you pick – others around us can tell. We won’t be able to successfully hide what we’re going through, and by not talking about it, our coworkers are left to guess what’s behind our mood.

That guesswork at best breeds confusion, while at worst results in paranoia and distrust; in the absence of solid information we humans tend to err on the side of pessimism (one of our more endearing traits).

So goes that old adage: “You can’t not communicate.” Even being completely silent conveys something to others.

Therefore, we need to decide what it is we want to be transmitted. As a leader, every interaction is always a teachable moment. What do you want taught?

You are going to have to answer that question for yourself because your response needs to be authentic and uniquely so. But if I had advice to give I would suggest something like the following.

We want to show how we are all vulnerable humans, not machines from planet Vulcan. That we can be genuinely ourselves while at work, make whatever accommodations are needed at that moment, and can take care of both ourselves and our roles & responsibilities. That we can be realistic and flexible; ask for help, delegate, and reprioritize.

Perhaps most importantly, we can let others into our world by being appropriately transparent about what is going on for us and in so doing reassure others that it’s not some catastrophe they dreamt up in the absence of real information.

We can create our group-culture on the spot by showing at least one version of how-it’s-done.

And because we want to ‘go far,’ we show them how we ‘go together.’

Something Chronic

Although emotional thunderstorms are entirely normal and expected, the additional scenario for entrepreneurs and executive-types is of ongoing challenges, stressors, unpleasant surprises of all sorts, and generalized heebie-jeebies (a technical rendering of the acronym VUCA as applied to business).

Unless that stuff is well managed, the inevitable result – sooner or later – is that momentary tensions morph into chronic stress.

The kicker is, we may not even notice; like mission-creep, the conditions of our endeavor go from temporary to being the status quo, and we never saw it coming.

For this, we bring in the big guns.


Typically, unless we’ve already been here a bunch of times before, chronic stress is seen in the rear mirror. Time for cleanup.

The most powerful distinction for this phase that I know of is time-tested & age-old: categorize everything you’re faced with into the two camps of either controllable (I-can-do-something-about-this), or uncontrollable (‘none-of-my-business). Put the second list somewhere out of sight and reach.

Follow that first list up with some military precision: Prioritize & Execute (discipline is freedom, people).

That covers the catch-up component, leaving the much-needed attitude shift…

Entering The Dojo

“The pursuit of revenue also serves as the ultimate stressor, the practice ground for growth.”

—Charlie Kim, NextJump

The thing about the growth-mindset is that if you’ve got it then you are all set to apply it to whatever’s at hand. But if you aren’t currently looking through that lens – and who is all the time? – then it can be tricky to get from here to there.

A dojo is a place of practice where the pursuit of excellence in something develops (our) character. That ‘something’ is already established: it’s your business, your mission, your role, your purpose in being where you find yourself, at work.

Remember, what we are after here is a way of shorting our ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ so that we win no matter what. We gain something of value no matter which way things go.

This can’t be a quant abstraction that won’t hold once stuff goes flying off the shelf. No, we need to know exactly what we stand to gain from resolving, working with, and/or enduring ongoing discomfort in the service of pursuing our objectives at work.

These questions can be a helpful place to start that inquiry:

Why You & Why This?
  • Why You, in this field, doing this work
  • What are you going to be better at that you’ll be grateful for?
  • Why will this journey be good for you regardless of the ultimate outcome?
  • What will success here make possible for you afterward?
  • What matters to you about your work here?

Balancing The Books

As no exploration of work-stress would be acceptable without at least mentioning work/life balance, here we go.

Elsewhere I have taken a more macro perspective on our assumptions about how to balance our work against the rest of our lives. Here I’m going to offer one distinction and then get practical.

Recently I was with a leadership team when the topic of the importance of creativity at work was being discussed. Well, until one member, in referencing the CFO who was also in attendance, made the crack: “Except you – ‘creative accounting’ is not what we’re in need of from you!”

Indeed, that’s called fraud (or, at least it should be).

What if we held to the same standards when it came to our other business resources: our time, our energy, our attention, willpower, discipline, stamina, and our resilience?

Your organization’s funding that designates your effective runway is only one factor determining potential success. But it is something we are used to quantifying and we can be grateful we got that hardass CFO to have to get our purchase orders through, because you may have noticed, they like to tell us “No.”

Their job isn’t to be creative, nor even optimistic, no, we have them to tell us the hard truths and keep us grounded in the incontrovertible realities of our condition. We have them to tell us what’s real.

And if you won’t tell yourself the truth about those other limited resources in your life, then you need either a wakeup call, a helping hand, or, most likely, both.

Unless you are a genetic freak, you need to average 7 or so hours sleep a night, and when you don’t then you are in deficit and will need to pay that back.

If you are not eating clean and exercising as a matter of habit then every personal resource you tap – everything, that when combined, amounts to your degree of resilience, vitality, and bandwidth when faced with the challenges you confront daily – all that is on borrowed time.

Yes, you can temporarily deplete yourself but that balloon payment will become due.

If you can’t figure this stuff out then get yourself a personal trainer or join a workout community to get motivated and stay accountable. Take a nutritional class.

And, for the love of God, please discuss your dilemmas of this kind with your family and close friends. They are just as much a resource in your life as the rest is, and spouses are notorious for being the same kind of truth-tellers that our CFOs are (if not a little less diplomatic).

A Neat Bow

We all can get upset, wrangled, and bent out of shape while at work. We will have either brought that stuff from home to work. Or, we will develop it at work and take it home with us. Leaders are no exception.

Our responsibility for the impact we have on our colleagues does not justify our hiding or pretending to be other than we are. We can choose the effect we are wanting to have and we can choose wisely.

Ongoing stress, like the background hum of our refrigerator, can quickly go unnoticed and yet that’s not the same as it actually disappearing. We need to remind ourselves to play the long game and create habits, rhythms, and practices that support us showing up sustainably. We need to get real.

An organization is about teamwork and that’s also where a lot of the good stuff is.

Let your team in.

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