Michael S. and Mary Sue Shannon Clinical Endowed Professor; Clinical Professor of Strategy
Between the emails, meetings, and one-off requests from colleagues, work offers many reasons to feel stressed—at our (and our team’s) peril!
“If it’s sustained, you’re not going to be as sharp; you’re not going to have time to be out in the market, so you’re going to reduce your creativity; your personal relationships are going to suffer; and your business is going to suffer,” says Carter Cast, a clinical professor of strategy at Kellogg.
On this episode of The Insightful Leader, Cast explains how leaders can help themselves and their teams mitigate stressful occurrences—and how to cope when stress does inevitably strike.
Laura PAVIN: Carter Cast is a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Kellogg. But in 2006, he was the CEO of the global internet division of Walmart.com. And he remembers one day when he had a really big meeting.
CAST: And I was gonna present to all the top brass about our future plans for Walmart.com.
PAVIN: That future involved warding off the threat that was Amazon.com. Cast and his team had worked on this presentation for months. He was excited about it. And so, he presented it … and got no traction.
Emotionally, it affected him in a big way. He was upset.
CAST: Then I complained to people close to me about their lack of vision, and I also lost sleep over it. I was thinking, “if I can’t get their support to make these changes, why am I even in this job?”
PAVIN: Does this thought spiral sound familiar?
Now, this is not going to be an episode about Walmart.com. As you’ll hear, Cast shares this experience for reasons that have nothing to do with Walmart.com at all. Instead, it’s a story about how he chose to interpret rejection, and how that led to stress and anxiety—but also how it doesn’t have to.
This is The Insightful Leader. I’m Laura Pavin. Cast spoke about stress at an Insightful Leader Live event, because it’s pervasive in the workplace. And not in a that’s-just-part-of-the-job kind of way! Job-related stress affects the bottom line. It costs the U.S. an estimated $300 billion a year in the form of absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical costs.
So today, Cast is going to explain how you can get a better handle on stress and how you can help the teams you manage wrap their arms around it, too. And he’ll do that with the help of his own experiences, including how he managed that big rejection at Walmart.com. Because a big part of coping with stress, Cast says, is not changing what happens to you, but changing how you think about it. And so, yes, we’ll look at the mechanics of eliminating stressful situations from your life, but perhaps more importantly, we’ll look at what to do when things don’t go your way.
PAVIN: When you’re happy with your life, overall, you’re going to clock in at work as a less-stressed person. And that’s important because stress isn’t always so conducive to doing great work.
CAST: If it’s sustained, you’re not going to be as sharp; you’re not going to have time to be out in the market, so you’re going to reduce your creativity; your personal relationships are going to suffer; and your business is going to suffer.
PAVIN: So the first key to reducing stress is to be more intentional about how you spend your time so that you’re doing more of the things that matter to you, and less of what fits other people’s agendas. In other words, don’t work in response mode.
But tell that to your inbox, right? Well, Cast says, “yeah, that is right.”
CAST: Remember, your inbox is someone else’s agenda, so don’t let your inbox manage you.
PAVIN: He’s talking to you, zero-inbox enthusiasts. Because breaking your concentration to respond to emails as they come in can be a real hindrance to your broader plans for the day. Research shows it takes a little over 23 minutes to recover from a work interruption.
A more manageable way to handle the barrage, Carter says, is by batching your days. And this doesn’t just apply to your behavior around emails.
CAST: So do your thinking work when you’re fresh, and then do your correspondences maybe from 11 to 12 or 10:30 to 12. Then you’re going to have meetings, and then you’re going to go back and do thinking work. At the end of the day, try to batch your day so that you’re not constantly in response mode.
PAVIN: In this way, batching can make your days a lot more predictable. And less stressful.
There’s another way working in response mode can come back to bite you: you overcommit yourself.
For example, maybe you’re trying to spend more time mapping out how your organization can meet its strategic goals, but you’ve been stuck putting out little administrative fires because you haven’t been given the staff or the resources to handle that part for you. How did you get stuck doing these administrative tasks? Out of necessity, sure. But did someone ask you to do it, and you said “yes”? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, that’s one way working in response mode can work against you.
Instead, Cast says you’ll want to be more proactive about how you spend your time. Take out your calendar, map out what you want to be doing when, and work hard to follow that. Amend your plans where they make sense. Build in buffers. And when people come to you with new things to do, Cast says that you should ask yourself a few questions before you take them on.
CAST: Does it inspire me? Is this where my talents lie? And is there significance to this action or to this initiative … for me or to the world?
PAVIN: And then make some decisions.
So if someone asks you to be the keynote speaker at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but the time you’ll need to commit to write your speech and present is a little much, ask yourself: Does speaking to chamber members about whatever it is you’ll be talking about inspire you? Is speaking about this topic where your talents lie? Finally, is any part of this significant enough to you to pull you away, yet again, from your bigger professional plans? Is it worth it?
If the scales tip a little harder in the “no” or “maybe” direction, decline.
CAST: You ask yourself, “will this activity make the highest possible contribution towards my key goals?” It’s either “heck, yes” or “no.”
PAVIN: But a lot of people have trouble saying “no.” To make it easier, Cast has a little trick for you: when confronted with a request, give yourself more time to respond.
CAST: Maybe you say, “thank you very much for that invitation; can I get back to you at 3 o’clock because I have to check my calendar, and I have to see if I can do this”?
PAVIN: Say you’ll think about it, and then actually think about it. It’ll be easier to approach people with that “no” when you know you legitimately cannot commit to something.
Now, all you managers out there? Know that while you’re working on being more intentional about how you spend your time, you should also be thinking about how you can do the same for your team. Because, by the nature of your job, you have a big say in how they spend their time.
CAST: You need to make sure you help your team members here cut the nonessential work that’s keeping them from focusing on the essential work and also giving them lack of peace of mind. You have to help here. We, as bosses, have to help here.
PAVIN: Help cut out the noise that distracts your team from doing their core work. You can do that by getting out that work calendar and looking at a typical week. Get your team involved in the process, too, if you can. And work together to simplify their tasks. Where are the unnecessary meetings? What can you do to reduce the meeting time? And then, how could you reallocate that saved time towards more important areas like customer visits in the market, networking with colleagues and other, more valuable, work?
More likely than not, your team will feel less stressed when they’re doing the work that makes them feel valuable.
PAVIN: Being intentional about how you spend your time can help you focus on your own agenda and avoid falling too deeply into the agenda of others.
But you can’t always control what happens. Like, maybe your budget was slashed in half, or a product you put out is being recalled because it’s faulty. Those are some really stressful situations you can’t say “no” to. But what you can do is change how you respond to it.
And that’s where our next stress-management tool comes in: reframing, with the help of some psychology.
Cast’s preferred framework is rooted in something called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also called CBT. Very basically, it’s an examination of how we respond to thoughts and situations, and it is often accompanied by an attempt to change how we perceive and respond to them.
Or, put even more simply:
CAST: It is a great way to reduce our stinkin’ thinkin’.
PAVIN: It’s a tactic you and your teams can use when the goings get rough, to put things into perspective. Like, if a sales call went south and now everyone’s on a downward thought spiral about their company or their own worth as people.
Here’s how Cast deploys the CBT approach.
CAST: You ask yourself a series of questions: “I’m having this negative thought. What evidence do I have that this negative thought is actually true? Are there any other viable alternatives to this negative thought that can explain it? And what if I flip my viewpoint on this negative thought? How well does it hold up if I flip perspectives?”
PAVIN: Remember Cast’s presentation to the executives at Walmart.com? He put all that work into presenting a way forward for the website to compete with Amazon and didn’t get the response he wanted from the top.
CAST: I was very disappointed.
PAVIN: So he wrote about it. He started by describing the situation as he saw it.
CAST: “The leaders should have been more open to and supportive of my Walmart.com strategic direction.”
PAVIN: And then, he pushed himself to take the opposite point of view.
CAST: “Leaders shouldn’t be more open to and supportive of my Walmart.com strategic direction.”
PAVIN: He made himself think through, and write out, why the leaders should not have been more open to his idea. For example:
CAST: The earnings call was the next day, and they just seem distracted, so it might not have even been about me. It might have just been about the circumstances, somewhat.
PAVIN: Cast came up with other reasons, too. Like: He really hadn’t done the groundwork ahead of time to make them receptive to his vision. And, thinking of it that way made him feel less negative and less anxious.
CAST: So I’m looking to take an alternative perspective to better understand the situation.
PAVIN: It’s a way of thinking that Cast thinks should be extrapolated in the workplace.
CAST: So maybe this tool can work for you with your team, or for you personally, when you get an example of something you’re really stressed out about where you’re having a recurring negative thought, and you’re not making a lot of progress in your head. And maybe it’ll allow you to see things from a different perspective and feel a better sense of agency about moving forward.
PAVIN: Now, Cast realizes that sometimes negative thoughts are sticky. Like, maybe your boss doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about a new initiative you’re pitching. And now you can’t shake this feeling that you didn’t have a great pitch, after all.
Cast wants you to consider this:
CAST: As human beings, we’re wired to have a negativity bias. We have about 6,000 thoughts a day. And the vast majority of those thoughts are recurring, repetitive, and negative.
PAVIN: That’s according to research from the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s University in Canada. But get this: according to more research ...
CAST: Of those automatic negative thoughts, 85 percent of them never happen. And of the 15 percent that do happen, 79 percent of the subjects said that they handled the difficulty better than they thought they would.
PAVIN: Which is to say that it really is possible that the worst case scenario isn’t true. And in the event that it is, you may handle that truth better than you thought you would. So why ruminate over it?
PAVIN: All of this thought-reframing and time management we talked about earlier, they’re all great for getting a handle on stress—unless your workplace culture doesn’t exactly welcome a dialogue around mental health, let alone putting bumpers in place to manage it.
If you’re a leader in that organization, you’ll want to create an environment where people do feel comfortable expressing when they’re feeling stretched thin. The alternative is people bottle up their emotions and don’t speak up about things that probably could be improved at the organization.
To avoid that and create a culture where people feel safe talking about certain stressors, consider being vulnerable, yourself.
CAST: I think probably the number one thing for leaders and leadership teams is signaling that it’s okay to do so.
PAVIN: If you’re in therapy yourself, for example, you might consider being open about that. Or even just mentioning something like “sometimes work gets to me, and I have to take a second to get my bearings.” However you do it, normalize the idea that people aren’t always okay, starting with yourself. That way, people will be more likely to come to you when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
CAST: You could offer books and various resources, have a quiet room that people can go in to meditate or think. But you could offer up tools and resources to show them that you are on their side, and you want people to be able to access resources that will be helpful.
PAVIN: Offering resources to everybody as a matter of course will ensure that nobody feels singled out by a new stress-reducing initiative.
PAVIN: Stress, whether it comes from your job or your life, can seriously affect how you think and feel. And it’s not good for your work, either. You can help yourself—and your team—manage that by really zeroing in on what you spend your time on, rather than trying to spin a bunch of plates at once. That way, you and the people you manage can spend more of your time doing the things that have the most value.
And, of course, make it a practice to reexamine the situations that make you feel stressed, angry or hopeless. Because while you can’t always control what happens, you can work on how it makes you feel, with a little bit of practice.
PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was written by me, Laura Pavin. It was produced by me, Jessica Love, Emily Stone, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. Special thanks to Carter Cast. Want more Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader Podcast.