Counter leadership stress with compassion

Managers do what needs to be done within the boundaries set by the organization. Leaders extend the boundaries of the organization. Extending the boundaries means that leaders need to make people feel comfortable and able to take that step.

As a result of this demand for influencing others and the increased responsibility of the position, leaders experience a form of stress called power stress. In addition, to be effective as a leader requires the regular exercise of self-control: placing the good of the organisation above personal impulses and needs. This is stressful too.

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Counter leadership stress with compassion

Managers do what needs to be done within the boundaries set by the organization. Leaders extend the boundaries of the organization. Extending the boundaries means that leaders need to make people feel comfortable and able to take that step.

As a result of this demand for influencing others and the increased responsibility of the position, leaders experience a form of stress called power stress. In addition, to be effective as a leader requires the regular exercise of self-control: placing the good of the organisation above personal impulses and needs. This is stressful too.

The impact of stress on our brain and body

Stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system, which initiates the classic fight or flight physical response. Meanwhile, even neural circuitry is reallocated, in the sense that the brain appears to focus on those circuits deemed necessary for survival (activation of the right prefrontal cortex). Cortisol is discharged from the adrenal gland and causes dysregulation of inflammation in part by decreasing the body’s ability to fight infection by suppressing cell-mediated immunity.

The impact stress has on the sympathetic nervous system, neural circuitry and cortisol production, eventually leads to fear, disgust, feeling depressed or anxious, and the feeling of an unpleasant engagement with the environment.

STRATZR brain right prefrontal activity
STRATZR sympathetic nervous systems stress

So how can leaders avoid stress and becoming sick, while extending boundaries and engaging people to join them?

The antidote for stress: lead and coach with compassion

Coaching with compassion is an antidote for stress. Coaching with compassion means to help others in their intentional change process, such as achieving their dreams or aspirations or changing the way they think, feel, and act.

Coaching with compassion means to be mindful by showing attentive awareness of what is going on in the present moment. It is also important to understand what is going on in your own mind at the same time, so that you can be more effective engaging the other. This sustains the care for the other and the willingness to act in response to the other’s feelings.

Compassion is about allowing one’s feelings to guide one’s actions in response to pain experienced by others. True compassion is characterized by the absence of an expectation or future benefits to be received in return from that individual.

The impact of compassion on our brain and body

During the experience of compassion, a person will more likely have neural circuits moving through through their left prefrontal cortex, great than the right. These neural circuits have been shown to relate to emotions such as elation and amusement and people reporting feeling excited, enthusiastic, and interested.

The experience of compassion evokes responses within the human body that arouses the parasympathetic nervous system, reversing the effects of the power stress response and arousal. It can operate like an antidote to stress.

Caring relationships are the key to arousal of the parasympathetic nervous system. High-quality relationships are characterized as consisting of relatively greater degrees of trust, respect, loyalty, liking, intimacy, support, openness, and honesty, than seen in low-quality relationships – which are more based on obligations.

STRATZR parasympathetic nervous systems stress
STRATZR brain left prefrontal activity
Make it happen!

It can be expected that coaching others for their development will arouse compassion in a leader, along with the psycho-physiological effects. Moving back and forth between aroused power stress and aroused compassion should lead to sustainable leadership effectiveness, by allowing the leader to maintain him/herself in a healthier state and have access to eliciting more brain power.

Unfortunately, due to time and energy constraints, leaders are only able to establish high-quality relationships with a selected number of subordinates.

Integrating coaching, compassion, and leadership could therefore result in a steady stream of capable leaders for the organization. A balanced physiological and psychological state for these leaders should enable the sustainability of their energy, focus, and talent.

Let this become part of your organization’s culture:

  • Be mindful and show empathy to leaders who extend boundaries and experience power stress
  • Make these leaders aware of practices to counterbalance this power stress
  • Promote coaching with compassion and allow more time and energy for this type of coaching
  • Train leaders to become compassionate coaches, extending their coaching skills for instrumental and organizational longevity
  • Monitor and care for the physiological and psychological health of leaders and employees in general
  • Prepare future leaders by training them to develop the ability to renew themselves before they are in roles that arouse chronic power stress

This post is based on Developing Sustainable Leaders through Coaching and Compassion by Richard E. Boyatzis, Melvin L. Smith and Nancy Blaize, published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar., 2006), pp. 8-24.

Worth reading if you want to know more!