You’re leading your team through an important, complex, stressful change. You’ve done the work to prepare and brought them into the process. You earned their buy-in, and you’re off to a great start. In the first week you make progress. In the second a little less. A month later, well… not enough.

maintaining focus is key to success in stressful change

Stressful Change Demands Focus

One of the biggest barriers to successful stressful change: losing focus. It’s easier to slip back into the old way, to put on the old comfortable shoes.

The problem is magnified because we’re not just dealing with one change. We’re implementing a new strategy… IT introduces a new email tool… a client changes the specifications on a big project… and meanwhile, a key team member is thinking about leaving. And at the same time: We have all the normal work that must be done every quarter, every day. It’s not just change – it’s stressful change!

In the chaos, it’s all too easy to let the strategic priority slip into the background. The way our brains respond to stress is part of the problem. When we’re stressed, our brains seek out opportunities for comfort – and resist what’s unknown. It makes sense: As chaos increases, our brains are seeking ways to make life easier.

it isn't enough to "work harder" -- stressful change requires new focus

Stressed Brains Block Change

Stress is a signal of rising complexity and risk. As you can see in this video, the neurological response to stress is easy to understand: Protect.


For our brain, one form of protection is slipping back into familiar ways of acting and reacting. When stress is low and curiosity is high, our emotions signal our brains, “this is a good time to try something new!” As stress rises, we seek the comfort of the familiar and of short-term, self-interested protection.

This “normal” reaction causes destructive behavior like undermining authority, building cliques of personal power, or even unethical actions like lying and stealing. So does it mean stress is evil and we’re stuck? Maybe not.

Using Stress to Fuel Complex Change

At the same time stress blocks change, we’ve all experienced that it can also be a motivation. When I tore my quadriceps tendon and was laying on the ground in agony (for the second time, by the way), I became quite convinced: It’s time to change. Stressful change can be the key to successful change!

When we are suffering, we may be open to try something – anything – to make life better. This presents an opportunity for an emotionally intelligent change leader.

Three Tips for Leading Stressful Change

Build trust: Don’t try to soften or hide or diminish the pain. When you and your team are at a point of struggle, denying it makes it worse. Acknowledge reality. No over-dramatization, and no empty words.

Build belonging: Make sure that you and the team are allies against the challenges. Your job is to support the team to beat back the besieging army, and you team needs to FEEL you as standing shoulder to shoulder.

Build motivation: Ensure that the vision of the future is something meaningful and real to all of the team. Find the language (metaphors, symbols) that make sense to each person (one “mantra” might not be effective, rather, recognize that you need to communicate 1-1 in a way that matches each person). You and they need to see and feel the opportunity. It takes cognitive intelligence to make a sensible plan as well as emotional intelligence to make it felt.

teamwork hands in air

Success at Change Requires Both Short and Long Term Focus

In most organizations, high performers are rewarded for getting stuff done. We know from the 2016 State of the Heart global EQ analysis that the majority of managers and senior managers have a “Deliverer” brain style. This is a style that prefers logic, experimentation, and concrete action. It’s essential for getting work done and achieving results. And it has a downside, the trap of becoming a “Human Doing.”

I can relate – usually when I take the Brain Brief Profile, I score as a Deliverer. I feel accomplishment and efficacy from putting my hands in a project and driving it to fruition, and I’m good at that, and I’ve been promoted for it. That short-term focus is a way for me to put my power to immediate use.

The risk for me, and maybe for you, is that I get so caught in the operative priorities of this week and this quarter… that I lose track of the big goal, and I find myself on the treadmill: Doing good work that doesn’t create change.

reflection is key to navigating stressful change

One solution is the calendar. Schedule time to refocus on the bigger picture, to reconnect with the picture of success in this change process. For me, it’s board meetings, because at Six Seconds we have a highly visionary board. If you don’t have that kind of alliance, it’s time to create one. Invite visionary people on your team to lead the sessions. Or bring in another leader from your org who can help you and your team pause and remember where your change is headed.

If you’re not making time for talking about the long term, don’t let another month go by without doing it. If you’re a hard-core Deliverer, you might find it uncomfortable to do this kind of reflection, but it’s essential for leading a long-term, stressful change.


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