The success and failure of change is interlaced with the complexity of stress. Is reducing stress and managing change possible for leaders? It’s easy to see why change creates stress. Stress also creates change – and, paradoxically, blocks it.

To lead change, or just to survive it, we need to learn more about how stress works.

Stressed about Change?

That’s good.

The success and failure of change is interlaced with the complexity of stress. Is reducing stress and managing change possible for leaders? It’s easy to see why change creates stress. Stress also creates change – and, paradoxically, blocks it. To lead change, or just to survive it, we need to learn more about how stress works.

According to Google’s dictionary, stress is:

/stres/ noun

  1. a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

synonyms: strain, pressure, (nervous) tension, worry, anxiety, trouble, difficulty;

Change certainly can fit that, “adverse or very demanding circumstances,” and it’s easy to see why stress seems so bad. But maybe stress can actually help us, especially in change.


Stress as a Resource Issue

Reducing stress isn’t always possible.  According to Kelly McGonigal’s work, The Upside of Stress, stress arises because we perceive the problem is bigger than our available resources. 

Imagine you are stuck in the middle of a wall of rock. Looking down, the ground is 300 meters away… and the top of the cliff is 300 meters above. How do you feel?

Feeling stressed? Do you have the resources to manage the task?

What if I tell you, you’re securely tied to strong ropes. And then what if we add that you happen to be highly skilled as a rock climber and very strong… and you have 3 other great climbers with you… and you’ve climbed this rock 10 times before! Oh, and maybe: You don’t have a fear of heights.

Can you see that as your available resources increase, is your stress reducing?

In this view of stress, it’s simply a warning. It’s yourself telling you: I’m not sure I have all the ingredients needed to handle this situation.

Stress During Change

As Peter Senge wrote, ‘People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.’ For example: You’re going to Paris, and decide to take the train for a relaxing day of travel, and you book a seat where you can enjoy a nice glass of wine and food on the trip. No problem! Yet if you had arrived at the airport expecting to fly, and suddenly no flights were possible, the train would seem negative.

 In this moment of change, stress might rise up, asking if you have the needed resources: “Do you have enough time,” stress will demand. “What if you miss your meeting?” “The train is so boring.” “It will be delayed because of all the others missing flights.” These could be realistic, useful questions… but as stress mounts, you’re probably becoming increasingly volatile.

To make matters worse… as your stress increases, you become increasingly likely to perceive additional threats. Stress is like a warning system – when we turn stress up to “high” it pushes our brains and bodies to prepare for big danger, which includes being more vigilant against new risks.



Stress tells you to pay attention and do your best. It’s like using a highlighter to mark up a document.  Stress makes the experience stand out.



When we really care about something we feel increased stress.  Harness your feelings of love for the team, the project outcome, the future opportunity to help focus your effort.


Fight Change, Run from Change, Hide from Change

As you might guess from the rock-climbing example, stress and fear are like lovers. Fear is an emotional message about risk. Fear seeks to protect, and arises when something we care about might be in danger.

Fear-based-stress will trigger our adrenal glands, and prepare our bodies to deal with the threat. This ancient biology pushes us toward three options: Fight. Flight. Freeze. Attack the enemy. Run away. Hide.

These might be quite a useful for handling certain kinds of threats. Probably they saved our ancestors from large animals in the forest. And, while organizational change issues can feel like bears chasing us… it’s unlikely that we can resolve the challenges of change by hitting it with a rock or by hiding in a tree. Unfortunately, as I explain in this video, as stress increases, our brains become more and more focused on this kind of survival:

So in this cycle of stress reaction, we are over-stating the risks, and it becomes increasingly important to us to seek safety. Safety of old patterns. Safety of the familiar – it makes change even harder.

To make matters worse, we live and work in a context of increased stress. It means our “stress-o-meter” is already turned up high, and it’s all to easy to go into distress.


An Alliance with Stress

There are two key ingredients in the definition of stress that may help you reduce stress better:

Stress occurs when we perceive threat

Stress occurs when we perceive our resources are less than the threat

So when you find stress rising, there are two obvious antidotes: Change you perceptions… and find more resources. Stress will cause you to focus on what’s wrong in the situation. As the uncertainty-inherent-in-change grows, stress causes you to pay more and more attention to the dangers. While this can help you survive, it can also hold you back from taking the leap to a new opportunity. Can you balance the voice of stress with the voice of possibility?

As you begin to see next steps, begin to ask: What resources do I have, what can I strengthen, and where can I find more? Your skills and experience are resources. So is your network. The fact that you’ve made it this far is a resource.

How to strengthen?

Document your accomplishments, and go out to learn something new.
Reconnect with old friends, and build new alliances.
Recognize your weaknesses, but also honor your capabilities.

Stress Reducing: Fueling Change

There’s another benefit of stress that’s important to hold onto. As I discussed in this interview with EQ author Daniel Goleman about stress and focus, there is certainly a point where stress becomes destructive. There is also a stage where stress is invaluable.

With zero stress, why would we bother to do anything new, learn, or step out of old patterns? In fact, when we are totally relaxed, our brains are quite inefficient. A little positive stress (technically called “eustress”) wakes our brains up and gets them focused, as you can see in the graphic to the right.


The Bottom Line on Stress Reduction


When we stay caught up in stress we become more resistant, less agile.

Stress is based on our perceptions of the challenge and available resources.

Discomfort is not bad, it can be a valuable catalyst for growth.

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