The Key to Lowering Team Stress Levels

Imagine if you could help your team work more efficiently and with less stress. Would that be helpful in these uncertain times?

I bet it would. And I bet your team would appreciate that kind of leadership.

Let’s look at a lesson from cycling to see how this works.

To lead a pack of cyclists, the leader must ride fast but also in a “smooth and predictable” manner so that the other riders can follow along in a way that flows efficiently and optimizes team performance.

If the leader goes a little more slowly up a hill, it’s easier for the others to stay close behind. If the leader pushes harder downhill, it’s easier for others to coast behind without hitting the breaks. None of these shifts are abrupt, but rather they are a gradual series of increases or decreases in effort by the leader as the uphill or downhill is approached.

The same is true for corners or obstacles or traffic. The leader’s job is to evaluate the terrain in advance and make subtle adjustments and clear signals so that everyone behind knows what to expect and has time to react and adjust.

Over time, the leader continually improves this ability and the riders learn to trust the leader more and more. Performance continually improves.

In contrast, the worst thing the leader can do is be “squirrelly” and erratic. Because if the leader suddenly jerks around a pothole, the others won’t have time to react. Rather than helping the pack safely around the pothole, the leader is dooming them to hit it head on. It’s a nasty setup; they won’t have time to react.

If this keeps up, the riders behind will quickly become more cautious and less confident in the leader. They will necessarily protect themselves by hanging back a little further and proceeding very carefully. Team performance suffers.

How to be smooth and predictable in uncertain times

The challenge in a time of crises is more difficult. The leader can’t see the terrain as clearly. Obstacles are popping up out of nowhere. And efficiency is not necessarily the primary goal.

But leaders can still provide important touchstones.

When the larger situation is uncertain, it becomes more important to lock in on routines that provide a sense of predictability.

Something like preserving a regular meeting schedule can provide comfort. Because even if there is a lot to be uncertain about, it can help to know that there will at least be an hour this week dedicated to talking about it and processing it as a group.

Rituals and routines carry a lot of weight in uncertain times. Maybe you can’t tell how this quarter’s performance will turn out, but you can commit to a regular schedule of communication. You can provide a consistent format and structure. And you can establish and maintain an authentic tone.

All of those things go a long way toward providing a greater sense of certainty, a greater sense of community, and help manage expectations even in fluid situations.

Be clear on the top priority

When it comes to doing the work at hand, be clear about priorities. And make the priorities as few as possible, ideally just one at a time.

Some of the biggest stress in normal times comes from unclear priorities. It’s one of the most common challenges I hear about. In uncertain times, priorities often become less clear and more fluid. One of the best things you can do as a leader is to pick the one that matters most and let go of some of the lower priorities.

That might include the way things are done. Perhaps many of the same things need to be done but leeway can be introduced into how they are done. This can open up opportunities for team members to shape or reshape some of the work. That can give them a greater sense of ownership and control, which is also a tremendously helpful way to reduce stress in uncertain times.

Your team can likely work quite a bit of magic, but don’t overlook the fact that they will be looking to you for guidance and permission. Be clear about what the top priority is for each of them and be explicit in delegating authority or asking for input and advice.

This is another way for you to be smooth and predictable. If the team has to guess at what is important to you, or has to react to shifts in your focus and priorities, you will simply be adding more stress. And they will hang back further.

You can provide better support by sending clear signals about what is going to be important on this next stretch of road, even if you can’t see around that next corner.