Managing stress in the federal workplace


(Illustration/Hieronymus)
April 24, 2012

Andrew Bernstein is the author of  The Myth of Stress and the founder of ActivInsight, an organization that helps employees and executives develop greater resilience and master change in the workplace. Bernstein was interviewed by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

Can you share tips for federal leaders on how to manage stress?

When you experience stress, recognize that this is coming from your own mind, not the world — and look for the belief triggering it. One way to do this is to identify the “should” in your thinking, such as “He shouldn’t have done that,” or “I should be in better shape.”

Next, gently try to see why — at this time — that belief may not be true in reality. Can you see the factors that have made it the way it is? Identify them. That’s why what happened happened. Learn to see and address these honestly instead of denying or blaming them.

At first, this is hard. You’re using mental muscles for the first time. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more resilience and wisdom you develop. Then put this into action! We want people to take action, but from clarity instead of frustration.

Federal leaders are under enormous pressure with budgets cuts, hiring freezes and increasing workloads. Do you have any advice to help them cope with the stress of the job?

First, stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life. Budget cuts don’t produce stress. It’s your thoughts about budget cuts that produce stress.

Here’s why that matters: Instead of learning to cope with or manage your stress, when you  recognize that stress is a reflection of your own thinking, a door that had long been closed opens up. Great performance doesn’t come from pushing through stress. It comes from transforming your thought process so that you can recover that wasted energy and approach your challenges from an entirely different perspective.

The idea isn’t to say, “Oh, it’s all in my thoughts. I have to be more positive.” This isn’t about becoming passive or accepting. I’m talking about a deeper change that requires greater accountability and a new skill set.

How would you go about resolving tension between an employee and his boss?

I’ll give you an example at a high level of how this works. I was working with a team of financial advisors. One junior partner believed that his boss should trust him more. This belief was destroying his morale. It wasn’t the boss, but the belief itself that derailed his performance. He went through our process to challenge his own thoughts and came out of it realizing that in reality, his boss should not trust him more at that time because of a number of past experiences.

He saw ways in which he hadn’t worked to communicate his concerns. He had withdrawn and blamed his boss instead of stepping up and saying, “I believe you don’t trust me. Can we talk about what happened, and what I would need to do to earn back your trust?” So going from the belief “My boss should trust me more” to realizing that’s not true, and here are the reasons why it’s not true, opened his eyes so he could see reality and act differently in the future. A new relationship emerged as a result. It wasn’t positive thinking or acceptance. It was real insight.

Can you provide an example of how to settle conflicts within leadership teams?

A group of leaders at a multinational health-care company were fighting with each other and had been for months. Each person thought that he was right and the others should see it his way. You can go through all kinds of team-building exercises, but at the end of the day, if you still think you’re right and your team members are wrong, the team building isn’t going to do much.

So in this case, we recognized that the belief that “Other people should see it my way” was derailing team performance. By challenging this and looking at why the other team members shouldn’t see it their way at that given moment — the differences in past experiences and priorities, the cultural constraints, the technical challenges of being a global team and communicating effectively — all this helped them see the false assumptions they had made. As a result of this greater clarity, they engaged in real dialogue. For the very first time, they were acting as a team instead of just a group of leaders. Behaviors changed, but as a byproduct of greater insight not will power or choice.

Are there any public figures who emulate your approach to leadership?

Great leaders are able to challenge their assumptions about the world and see it as it really is, without blame or polarization. I think our president has at times been a powerful example of this, and when others are able to meet him there, real good has come out of that. We need more of this on both sides of the aisle, and at all levels of government. And one way to get there is for people to identify where they experience stress, and then learn to transform their assumptions in these areas to see the bigger picture more clearly.

More from On Leadership:

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life

A love note to the workaholic

Your advice for a bad boss

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