Three Tips for CEOs to Manage Their Stress and Protect Their Brands

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An interview with Dr. Michele Nealon-Woods, National President, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

We all know CEOs and business leaders encounter stress daily. Yet, how you handle stress – and how you make decisions while under fire – can strongly impact your organization and your brand.

About a year ago, I met Dr. Michele Nealon-Woods, the National President for The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a licensed clinical psychologist, when she spoke to the 2013 Leadership America class. I found her speech incredibly insightful. Recently, I had the chance to talk to her about the impact of stress on decision-making.

“Some levels of stress are desirable, as stress can actually push us forward and motivate us, but if you turn the stress dial up too fast or too often, it can have a negative impact,” she said. “That’s because with stress comes anxiety, and with too much stress and anxiety, there are negative cognitive, emotional and physical effects, such as reduced capacity to make decisions and a weakened immune system.”

Citing psychologist Daniel Ganster, Michele then explained the physiological component to stress. Through his research findings, Ganster discovered stress produces an arousal response that impairs your ability to perform needed tasks like decision-making.

“Uncertainty increases stress. The unknown or an unpredictable change can happen quickly. When the recession hit, for example, in 2008, we saw stress levels dial up quickly, for many to an all -time high. Leaders also get stressed all the time, as they are acutely aware of and know their actions and decisions can and do impact the entire organization, including their bottom lines,” Michele continued. “Furthermore, stress can be compounded by the speed at which business leaders need to make decisions, often times without much quiet time to process the issues in play.”

According to a 2011 study by the American Psychological Association, 73% of people experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. With stress impacting this many people, there is no question as to whether or not it invades the business environment. However, one important question does remain: What are the best methods for handling stress so that you can protect your organization’s reputation in a time of crisis with swift, effective decision-making?

Michele has three tips for CEOs to better manage their stress and stay psychologically grounded.

  1. Know your mission and objectives. Narrow your focus and concentrate your attention on important information when making a decision.
  2. Remain proactive rather than reactive. There is always noise around you…you must learn to interrupt the noise and reflect. Anticipate situations and focus on outcomes.
  3. Be realistic. Business is a moving target, and mistakes will happen. But the sooner you correct them, the better your chances are for preventing a single mistake from snowballing into a major crisis.

Strong CEOs take a deep breath and know they can’t predict the future. They know when to proactively manage their personal stress. As a result, they are better decision-makers and can anticipate change is coming. By focusing on solutions instead of problems, you can stay grounded and keep your organization grounded, too.

More information about Dr. Michele Nealon-Woods:
Huffington Post

Further reading on stress and decision-making:

EXECUTIVE JOB DEMANDS: NEW INSIGHTS FOR EXPLAINING STRATEGIC DECISIONS AND LEADER BEHAVIORS (2005) – Donald C. Hambrick

EXECUTIVE JOB DEMANDS: SUGGESTIONS FROM A STRESS AND DECISION-MAKING PERSPECTIVE (2005) – Daniel C. Ganster

EXECUTIVES SOMETIMES LOSE IT, JUST LIKE THE REST OF US (2005) – Donald C. Hambrick

Making Fast Strategic Decisions in High-Velocity Environments (1989) – Kathleen M. Eisenhardt

Paradoxical Effects of Stress and an Executive Task on Decisions Under Risk (2013) – Stephan Pabst, Daniela Schoofs, Matthias Brand, Mirko Pawlikowski, Oliver T. Wolf

The Slowdown in Executive Decision-Making (1986) – George S. Odiorne

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Becky Powell-Schwartz, Founder & CEO