The sometimes unrelenting stress of a job can keep both employees and leaders awake at night. They toss and turn as they ruminate about a variety of issues, such as whether an important customer will sign a new contract or if there will be layoffs after a merger.
But two workplace scientists say that there is a way to make teams more resilient so that they can handle whatever changes come their way without having sleepless nights. Even leaders can learn to let go of fruitless worrying and focus on finding new solutions or ideas, they say.
“The only thing that should legitimately keep you awake at night is a book you just can’t put down or a movie you just have to see through to the end. Rumination never solves anything. In fact, it has the opposite effect and may well be giving you a definitely more miserable and probably shorter life in the process,” says Derek Roger, a psychologist who has spent three decades researching the causes and effects of stress.
Roger, along with Nick Petrie, is author of “Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success.” They say that rumination prolongs the “emotional misery” and isn’t just a by-product of stress. “It is stress. If there’s no rumination, there’s no stress,” they write.
Petrie, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, says that if teams don’t develop a more resilient approach to problems or challenges, then organizations will see an increase in stress, sick leave, disengagement and suffering. “It is hard to watch the way people who have no coping tools, and ruminate so much, are suffering in the workplaces,” he says. “It seems predictable but unnecessary.”
Roger and Petrie point out that rumination is primarily a conditioned habit, and it can be changed by individuals who practice doing it.
One way to do that, for example, is by an individual considering the last time he or she was up all night, fretting over an issue.
“What did it look like in the morning? The problem hasn’t disappeared, but the catastrophizing about it has generally dissolved, at least to an extent,” Roger explains. “This is not to suggest that ‘sleeping on it’ will solve the problem – it rarely does – but when you wake up you do have sufficient perspective to problem-solve with reflection rather than rumination.”
So, to stop the mind from churning with stress, Roger suggests the person get out of bed and either work on the problem “or give your mind something else to focus on,” he says. “This is all about attention control, and if you can’t sleep because of rumination, your attention has been hijacked by the what-ifs and the if-onlys, pointlessly circling in the mind.”
Dealing With Uncertain Times
Leaders also need to be aware their actions can cause teams to spend too much time focusing on their distress instead of being productive, they say.
“There are two conditions under which people are more likely to ruminate more: high uncertainty and a low sense of control,” Petrie says.
So a micromanaging leader who refuses to share his or her feelings and won’t talk about what is known or unknown about upcoming changes causes even more anxiety. Instead, Petrie says this leader should be asking employees questions about their options and actions available to them.
“When leaders start to ask good coaching questions, the staff starts to see that they have control and certainty over what they can do,” Petrie says. “There will always be change, but there will always be stability, too.”
Roger says that while it might seem obvious to boost the amount of information to employees in order to relieve their anxiety, “it is so often compromised by a whole raft of misperceptions – such as leaders worrying that people might be made more anxious if they know how bad things are.
“In fact, people would far rather know exactly what the situation is, rather than feeling they’re being kept in the dark. Lacking information will almost inevitably devolve into rumination, and hence our plea to leaders to try to not to give anyone anything to ruminate about,” Roger says.
William Bridges, a leading researcher on change, says that people want to know during any change:
- Purpose. “Why are we making this change? What is the rationale behind it?”
- Picture. “What is the end state we are trying to get to?”
- Plan. “What are the steps we need to take to get there?”
- Part. “What is my role in the change? How do I help?”
If leaders don’t answer these questions, then there is a “vacuum of uncertainty” that will be filled by rumination, the authors say.
“As Nick has pointed out in the book, when companies restructure or change in some way, there is usually more that stays the same than changes. But because of negativity bias we tend to focus on the negative. So, if one relatively minor bad thing happens – together with a whole lot of good stuff – it tends to be the bad one we remember and ruminate about,” Roger explains.
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Using emotional intelligence
Petrie notes that leaders shouldn’t ignore the team members who seem to be ruminating about an issue, hoping it will resolve itself. That strategy, he says, may only prolong the problem and further impact the team’s productivity.
“This is the time that a good leader can ask the questions: ‘What might the opportunity be here for you? What might turn out to be great for you about this situation?’” he says. “When people are upset at work the first step for leaders is to empathize.”
Roger says that employees may not be resistant to change just because they’re being stubborn – but because they’re scared.
That’s why leaders need to understand that being more sensitive to the feelings of various team members is important, and doesn’t signal that the leader is weak because he or she provides a sounding board for concerns. This empathy – or “detached compassion” – is a way for leaders to help team members be more resilient because they learn what is scaring the employee and then help him or her find ways to cope with these feelings and move on. The authors have found through their research that leaders receiving the highest ratings from their direct reports had facets of emotional intelligence such as expressing emotion appropriately “and being able to empathize without becoming over-involved,” Roger says.
Petrie says that research has shown that emotions are contagious, so the leader who is reacting rationally to change will be the greatest influence on a team’s ability to be more resilient. In addition, leaders can tap into those on the team who are more detached than other team members to help set the right tone for the team.
“There is a saying that your greatest teacher is the person who is one step ahead of you on the path. Look for the person who is one step more detached than the others as their approach to dealing with pressure will seem more realistic than some expert who we can’t relate to,” Petrie says.
One of the most difficult issues for leaders trying to help a team be more resilient is a team member who tends to overdramatize any situation.
“In my experience, these are the people who everyone talks about, but nobody talks to,” Roger says.
He suggests in this case, the leader should:
- Meet one-on-one with the employee.
- Let go of judgments about the person and try to be sensitive without becoming too involved in the drama.
- Invite the person to share by asking, “You do seem to be really upset a lot of the time about….is there anything we can help you with?” While Roger says this might “open the curtains on the drama,” it will also provide an opportunity to ground the conversation by saying something like, “I appreciate that, but going round and round just seems to be reinforcing it all. Maybe there’s a different way?”
- Keep the focus on the present and continue to offer a rational way of thinking about the issue.
“Don’t expect an overnight transformation – what you’re aiming for is the person gaining sufficient insight into the effects of their behavior on the team, so that they can be more mindful of it,” Roger says. “The problem might of course be serious enough actually to require therapy, and facilitating a referral to a professional might be the best course of action.”