Countless articles have addressed one of the most important tasks given to senior leadership within any organization: the ability to identify the next generation of future leaders within the firm. We look for passionate individuals who wake up each day craving success, but who can channel that passion into actions and results. We seek out creative thinkers who are intensely curious, identifying those who naturally crave answers and alternative ways of approaching problems. The trait of true grit is valued within an organization; we respect those who have the strength to learn why they failed, what to do in the future to succeed, and the willpower to get back on the horse and make another effort.
In our research on the topic, we discovered another crucial attribute as it relates to identifying future leaders: the stress test, something of particular significance to startups. Great leaders always seem to have the ability, at least outwardly facing, to remain calm during situations that make most of the general population fall to pieces.
Why the Stress Test?
Think about it a bit; it makes sense. Drama in the workplace is the enemy of productivity. Incessant venting can create an emotionally exhausting experience for all involved. Individuals who react, instead of respond, typically do not endear themselves to others within the team.
Alternatively, good leaders can keep cool even when the situation provokes an emotional reaction. But great leaders also help everybody else stay calm and contribute to the imminent situation and impending objectives. There is a difference between managing one’s self and managing the reactions of others, and the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Think of this; within the workplace, it is common for individuals to achieve promotions based on their commitment to personal success early in their careers. As individual contributors, they can produce more simply by doing more. They can choose to work harder and longer, and to be more productive. There is a tremendous amount of control, and correlation, with the relationship between effort and outcomes. When promoted into leadership, one suddenly becomes responsible for the work and success of others. Leaders’ efforts alone are often insufficient to achieve results, especially if they lack the coaching ability to adequately influence others. Thus, the stress test is relevant not only for one’s capacity to manage personal emotions, but to also transform the dynamic of the entirety of the workplace.
Screening for Stress
It is commonly known that individuals put their best foot forward throughout the interviewing process – both applicants and hiring managers alike. Professional game faces are on, and many would liken interviewing to dating, which begs the question: when do you really get to know what is underneath the surface? What combination of behavioral-based interviewing questions and situational scenarios should we engage in with the intention of seeing a candidate’s true colors under stress? The subject of engaging a candidate in awkward situations in an interview is not widely accepted, likely for good reason. Sighing or interrupting candidates while they are talking, acting aloof and not paying attention, or repeating questions to see if one gets frustrated do not lend themselves to an attraction-based recruitment strategy. Consider some of the following questions to evaluate aptitude:
• It doesn’t seem as though you have enough experience for this role. Tell me why you believe we should hire you, or why I’m wrong in my assessment.
• Do you think you’re doing well in this interview?
• I don’t think I understand your answer. Can you please explain it differently?
• How would you handle putting in a couple hours of overtime after a busy, stressful day?
• Tell me about a time when you didn’t reach a goal. What happened, and how would we know the same situation wouldn’t occur here?
• How do you prevent a situation from getting too stressful to manage?
• What advice would you give to calm down a colleague who is stressed out about a deadline?
• How would you deal with frequent changes at work? Client expectations change, a deadline gets moved up, new inexperienced individuals joining the team, etc.
• How do you ensure that stressful situations in your personal life don’t affect your work performance?
It is also worth considering the dynamic between a personality type and the ability to comfortably cope with change or pressure. Some individuals are wired to embrace bold new ideas and the bigger picture, believing that risks are worth taking and appreciate the challenge. Others are pragmatic, are drawn by data and facts, and details matter. Although the former may be naturally wired to deal with stress easier than the latter, it is possible to teach a key component of stress management: detachment. Teach individuals to avoid negative self-talk, the “what if” rabbit holes, and to slow down and breathe. It is possible to coach to emotional stability, allowing employees to understand how to view a situation with a healthy level of detachment, process what is happening around them, and take helpful and purposeful action.
On the Brink of Burnout
Improving stress management capabilities is one thing; bringing employees to the brink of burnout is another. Create a healthy balance between high achievement and high enjoyment. Be spontaneous; this could be as simple as rearranging office furniture or hosting an impromptu casual lunch gathering. Instead of your next brainstorming meeting being conducted in the office, take a walk instead – you will be surprised as to how the creative moments can flow in a more relaxed setting. Ask individuals what they think; you do not always need to implement their input, but people want the opportunity to be heard. Know their personal and professional goals for the year and take responsibility for helping them achieve at least one or two of them yourself. Make progress on helping uncover the future potential of each player on your team; they have put their careers in your hands and it is a responsibility, as a leader, that we should take seriously.